Amid dermatologist shortage, UNM offers free screenings during Melanoma Awareness Month

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – New Mexico sees roughly 290 sunny days a year. But with all that sunshine comes high rates of skin cancer, and it turns out there’s just not enough dermatologists in New Mexico to treat all those patients.

Lucky Smith loves to enjoy the outdoors, he’s always at Tingley Beach fishing. Even if he’s not catching fish, he’s definitely catching sun rays and he’s gotten pretty tan.

"This is my color, and see, that is because of the sun. You’re not paying attention of the rays," said Smith.

He knows he has to check out his skin from time to time, especially because he doesn’t wear sunscreen.

"My skin, it’s dead skin. It’s peeling, that’s about it. It’s old dead skin," Smith said.

"Of course with all of the sun we have in New Mexico, with the nice days and outdoor activities, it does increase the risk of skin cancer," said Dr. John Durkin, UNM assistant professor of Dermatology.

Durkin says they see many cases of skin cancers, including the potentially deadly melanoma. He says seeing a dermatologist can be a challenge for a few reasons: the state has a shortage of them, there aren’t many practicing in rural areas, and wait times to see one are long.

"Based on a study that we did in 2019, there’s fewer than 35 dermatologists that are in the entire state of New Mexico, serving a population of more than 2 million people. This is less than about half of the number of dermatologists that we need to care for the population of New Mexico," said Durkin.

He says there also needs to be more education about skin cancers, and people should know that those with light complexions aren’t the only ones susceptible.

"We also know from studies that our Native American patients, and Hispanic patients, even though they have a lower chance of melanoma, it tends to be more advanced, and because of that they may need more treatment," Durkin said.

As for Lucky, he says he’s mindful of the sun and tries to keep covered and fish under shade and umbrellas when he can.

Starting in May, during Melanoma Awareness Month, UNM will do free skin cancer screenings across the state. They will also be heading into rural areas, so people can get checked.

For more information, visit UNM’s skin cancer screening website.