Software to help GPs to detect the early signs of cancer is to be trialled in England in 2010.

The new computer-assisted cancer risk assessment announced by cancer tsar, Professor Mike Richards, will help GPs to decide whether the symptoms a patient presents with indicate the presence of cancer and whether further tests or investigations are needed.

The software will assess a patient’s age, weight and symptoms such as rectal bleeding or fatigue and provide evidence-based guidance on action needed.

In an interview with the Guardian, Professor Richards emphasised that GPs rather than computers would continue to make key judgements in managing patients. “The GP will always have the final say. If he wants to refer a patient to hospital he will always have the right to do so.”

Britain has a relatively poor record among developed countries in detecting cancer early, partly because some GPs fail to identify and act on cancer symptoms. This problem, plus the difficulty of diagnosing cancer and the sheer number of other ailments that GPs need to know about support the case for introducing the technology, Professor Richards says.

“This is helping GPs because none of us can retain this sort of information [about cancer symptoms] and having to retain it for bowel cancer, lung cancer and ovarian cancer as well as heart disease, it would take a remarkable human brain to do that, so why not get a computer to support it?” Professor Richards said.

The plan is to pilot the software with a number of surgeries across England in the spring.