Turning cancer mountain into a virtual molehill

01:01, Sep 23 2013
Amanda Oakley
Lesion of honour: Professor Amanda Oakley is one of New Zealand’s foremost authorities on skin cancer. The computer shows a dermoscopic image of a melanoma.

Taking a "better safe than sorry" approach has long been the established way of dealing with suspected skin cancers.

But how many hours have surgeons spent cutting off moles and marks that subsequently turn out to be harmless?

Too many, according to skin specialist Amanda Oakley, who heads the virtual lesion clinic at Waikato Hospital.

Professor Oakley leads a project using new visual technology that can see into the skin, and melanographers ("nurses who ask the right questions and take the right photographs") to reduce the unnecessary time and labour it takes for people to ensure they are cancer-free. Essentially, it allows expert dermatologists to examine high-quality images to determine whether or not moles and lesions are cancerous before the lengthy and costly process of referral and waiting for a surgeon even begins.

"We can reduce cost and reduce waiting times for first specialist assessments," Prof Oakley said.

"It is greatly assisting GPs with the diagnosis and management of skin cancer, with the help of melanoma specialists.


"We get referrals from GPs who think their patient has a skin cancer.

"Usually these people can languish on the waiting list for months. Now, they don't need to. They can be seen more quickly and just as effectively."

The project, conducted by the clinic in conjunction with Molemap NZ, has proved a success to the extent it has been adopted by the Waikato District Health Board and is being emulated by other hospitals and health boards around the country. Molemap has a contract with the health board to provide imaging services at Hamilton's Anglesea Clinic and Thames and Te Kuiti hospitals.

Prof Oakley is a trustee on the Waikato Medical Research Foundation and although she has never benefited from a foundation grant herself, the clinic received a boost from its coffers when it was set up three years ago.

Since that time, more than 1800 patients have gone through the process of getting specialist opinions, prior to going under the knife - or not, as is increasingly the case.

The foundation's funds have also helped the clinic employ talented young dermatologists, she said.

Although it is not widely known outside the hospital campus, the foundation has been helping fund medical research in the region for almost 30 years. It has a capital fund of $1.3 million, but wants to boost this to $5m since it has an increasing number of worthwhile proposals to consider.

Last year, it had 19 applications requesting a total of nearly $465,000 - far more than the sum available.

With assistance from Trust Waikato, the foundation distributed $136,963.

To donate to the Waikato Medical Research Foundation, visit its website, wmrf.org.nz/ and click on the "donate" tab.