The question of whether people should be screened by a doctor for signs of skin cancer would seem to be a simple one, but it turns out not to have a simple answer.
Some organizations recommend that people be screened for skin cancer by having their skin examined by a physician regularly. Both the American Academy of Dermatology and the Skin Cancer Foundation recommend annual complete skin examinations for everyone. The American Cancer Society recommends that everyone age 40 or older should have a complete skin examination every year and that everyone age 20 to 39 should have a complete skin examination every three years.
On the other hand, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which makes official recommendations for preventive medical care in the United States, says that there is insufficient evidence to recommend either for or against routine complete examination of the skin in people who have no symptoms of a skin problem. The Task Force says that the benefits from screening are unproven, even in high-risk patients. There have been no scientific studies that have directly examined the question of whether screening by doctors leads to improved outcomes, such as more successful treatment of skin cancer or lower rates of complications or death. This is why the Task Force was unable to make a definitive recommendation.
All experts agree, though, that when doctors are examining patients for other reasons, they should be on the alert for signs of skin cancer, especially in patients who are at highest risk for melanoma, such as fair-skinned people over the age of 65, people with atypical moles, and those with large numbers of moles on their bodies.
When expert recommendations conflict, as they do in this instance, it is hard for patients to know what to do. It's important to remember, though, that the difference in opinion about whether or not skin cancer screening is justified is limited to patients who have no symptoms. Anyone who has noticed a symptom - such as the development of an abnormal-looking patch on their skin or a change in the appearance of a mole - should see a doctor to find out whether they have a problem that needs treatment.