Computers have been shortlisted in a British Medical Journal poll to determine the greatest medical breakthrough since 1840.

They are one of 15 medical advances, chosen by BMJ readers, that have made the list to find the greatest medical breakthrough since the journal was launched 166 years ago.

Other contenders for the title include anaesthesia, antibiotics, the risks of smoking, the pill and sanitation.

Each of the 15 breakthroughs will be championed by doctors on the BMJ website over the next ten days and anyone can vote for their favourite breakthrough on the website.

Championing computers are two professors from the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation at the University of Toronto. They are the chair and founder of the centre, Alejandro Jadad, and emeritus professor at the university, Murray Enkin.

They comment: “The capacity to compute is at least as old as life itself. It has been driven for billions of years by organic software encoded in elaborate sequences of base pairings embedded in DNA…Over only decades in the second half of the 20th century we developed powerful resources to communicate and exchange unlimited amounts of knowledge, almost anywhere and at any time.

"We created a global network of computers able to decode the genome; machines capable of seeing our body and its functions in three dimensions; tools to track and control diseases remotely. Computers started to change the way we learn, live, communicate, and heal.

“Computer technology can help us achieve optimal levels of health and wellbeing regardless of who or where we are. It can help us transcend our cognitive, physical, institutional, geographical, cultural, linguistic, and historical boundaries. Or it can contribute to our extinction. We believe that the choice is ours. We hope that we choose, not just with information, not just with knowledge, but with wisdom.”

Voting will close on 14 January and the winner will be announced by the Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow at a celebratory event in London on 18 January.

BMJ editor, Dr Fiona Godlee, said: “Any of these milestones would make a deserving winner – they have all made an enormous contribution to society and made a difference to millions of lives. It will be fascinating to see which one will come out on top.

“It’s also an opportunity to consider how these milestones will develop medicine in the future. Will genetics deliver on its promise of real clinical benefit? Can computers help us achieve optimal health for all? And will the end game for smoking be just 20 years away, as one of our champions confidently asserts?”

The project is a celebration of the most important medical milestones of the past 166 years to mark a redesign of the BMJ journal and its website.