You know you are well and truly in the 21st century when computers are outperforming doctors on predicting how best to treat cancer patients.

The Independent (online) reports that scientists recently constructed mathematical formulas that were better able to forecast how cancer sufferers would respond to treatment.

Dr Cary Oberije of Maastricht University Medical Hospital in The Netherlands and her fellow researchers conducted a study using a computer model of lung cancer.

After personal medical details and the treatment history of patients were fed into the model, the researchers found it gave a better assessment than experienced radiation oncologists of how patients were likely to respond over a two-year period.

The study used a mathematical model to make predictions of how many lung cancer patients in a group of 121 would still be alive after two years, how many will suffer breathing difficulties and how many will find it difficult to swallow.

For all three scenarios, the model outperformed the patient’s own doctors at making the correct prognosis, with the doctors’ predictions being little better than those expected by chance.

The article explains that computer models and mathematical analysis of cancer data is becoming increasingly important as more and more data is collected on individual patients, and researchers have also shown that cancer manifests differently in people, requiring different treatments depending on the individual.

Dr Oberije said the study could be used as a strong argument in favour of using prediction models and changing current clinical practice.

“We know that there are many factors that play a role in the prognosis of patients and prediction models can combine them all… Our study shows that it is very unlikely that a doctor can outperform a model,” she said.

However Dr Oberije has acknowledged that while the models have proven to be more precise than humans in this study, they are still only a tool to help doctors, not to replace them.