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An app for the awkward skin issues you never tell anyone about. Is this the Snapchat of dermatology?


You know when you get a weird rash somewhere on your body so intimate that you feel too embarrassed to even see a doctor so you just cross your fingers and hope it goes away on its own?

Well, there is no need to be embarrassed anymore because there is now an app that lets you anonymously consult a board-certified dermatologist.

First Derm lets you submit medical information anonymously and delivers personalised recommendations within 24 hours, just like your personal doctor would – only that it is also available on weekends and holidays when your doctor would be out playing golf.

Dr. Alexander Börve, an orthopaedic surgeon from Sahlgrenska University hospital, Sweden and currently on a fellow researcher at the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley is the CEO of iDoc24, the bootstrapped digital health start-up behind First Derm.

“Health issues are embarrassing. How many times do you post that you are sick on social media?” asks Dr. Börve, who has been researching the mobile medical space since 2005.

“Never. People are inherently reserved about their negative features and prefer to keep illnesses to themselves. Some are even hesitant to consult a doctor unless it’s a life threatening emergency.”

This is why Dr. Börve believes anonymity in health apps is really important today. 

What is the story behind First Derm?

“I have always been a fan of technology. At medical school I used the Palm and Handspring handheld devices for my education,” says Dr. Börve who is originally from Norway, but did his training as an orthopaedic surgeon in Sweden.

While doing his residency, Dr. Börve spent a lot of time in the emergency room.

“For the incoming accidents, the ambulance personnel would take a Polaroid photo of the accident for more information about the accident scene, but this information was not of interest when the patient was in the ER, as every second counts to save the patient.”

This gave Dr. Börve an idea. What if the ambulance personnel took a photo of the accident scene and sent it in as an MMS to a platform where he and the other ER personnel could see what was coming in and prepare themselves? 

This was a great idea, but Dr. Börve faced a lot of resistance, especially from his older colleagues, and was unable to get it implemented in the hospital.

Then one day, Dr. Börve’s then girlfriend who was a dermatologist told him about a dinner party she attended. When she introduced herself as a dermatologist to the guests, some of them came up to her asking her for advice about their skin problems, of which most were in places that required removing some clothing. Basically, she had one awkward evening…

So Dr. Börve asked her if she could diagnose from MMS images and short texts explaining the problem, and it turned out she could in most cases.

“So from there I had the idea that anyone with a skin problem could send in queries anonymously to dermatologists and receive instant advice on possible diagnosis, treatment and/or if a face to face visit with a dermatologist was needed,” he told Anthill.

What problem is First Derm solving?

Four in five of us use an internet search to find out more about our symptoms before discussing them with our partners, parents or a doctor. We like the anonymity of the internet.

However, researching about skin problems without medical expertise is difficult, tedious, dangerous and oftentimes unproductive since it is difficult to search images.

And in many cases if you use WebMD, you end up getting wrongly diagnosed with a serious illness such as cancer, which gets you unnecessarily worried.

“With First Derm, you are anonymous. We are filling the gap between a doing Google search and going to a dermatologist in person,” Dr. Börve explained.

“The service does not replace a doctor’s visit, but you get a possible diagnosis, possible treatment plan and if a doctor should be seen face to face.”

He revealed to Anthill that most (70 per cent) of their users receive pharmacy over-the-counter treatment options and only the remaining 30 per cent are advised to see a dermatologist in person for further tests, diagnosis and treatment.

He also pointed out that they do not prescribe medication, further revealing that most (80 per cent) of their cases do not need prescription medications anyway.

“Peace of mind is the greatest driver of our service. People want to know what is wrong right away and also what to do next,” Dr. Börve stated.

How does First Derm work?

The app is free to download and there is no sign in or registration.

No personal information is collected and all metadata (such as GPS location) is deleted from the images so users are completely anonymous. Only size and colour of image as well as the description of the skin issue are collected.

Customers use phones to first take pictures of their skin issues and then submit those images to the First Derm platform for a dermatologist to review.

First Derm currently has 20 dermatologists, all board-certified, that speak 6 languages – the app is in English, Swedish, Spanish, French, Italian and Chinese.

Dr. Börve further disclosed that they have 50 more dermatologists that want to join the team, mostly from the US, but as far afield as Kuwait, Hong Kong, India, Germany and Chile.

The app which is available for iOS, Android and Web employs a tiered pricing structure: an answer within 8 hours for $100 or within 24 hours for $40 or within 48 hours for $25.

You can also share the app with five friends via e-mail or SMS to get a free consultation.

How is First Derm performing so far?

First Derm has been downloaded over 80,000 times worldwide in 127 countries, and currently has over 2000 incoming cases per month.

In Australia, they have had over 1,000 downloads so far and are in the top 100 for medical apps in the iOS app store, having once made it to the top 10. Which is no surprise if you think about it. The state of Queensland is the skin cancer capital of the world.

The app has also won several competitions, the latest being a Mobiley award which Dr. Börve will be collecting in Washington on December 10, 2014.