Is Raspberry Pi(e) good for health?

The much awaited Raspberry Pi computer finally went on sale earlier this yearImage from http://www.flickr.com/photos/websmith/sets/72157628943118689/  under Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0). In case you’ve not been keeping up with all things tech, the Raspberry Pi is as small as a credit card and priced at a mere £21.60 for the B model. Yes, a functioning computer that costs less than an external hard drive.

The main aim of the Raspberry Pi project is to encourage kids to learn the art of coding, with a view to developing the tech-savvy workforce of the future. For the most part I think this is a good thing, although extrapolating that to say that more people should study computer science at uni might not be sensible when you look at the employment rates for comp sci graduates compared with other subjects. It’s a bit like saying that standards of written English are in decline, so more people should study linguistics. Of course some should, but that’s not the best way to disseminate a skill or insight widely.

What we really need is for people with coding skills to be found in all sorts of professions. Viewing these skills as the ‘means’ rather than the ‘end’ is important. Having the confidence to ‘have a go’ and try different approaches to problem solving is as important as knowledge of a specific programming language.

I come under the heading of ‘people who’d like to try programming but are scared of breaking their computers in the process’. Given what I do in my day job, I should have got over this by now, but I can still recall how mortified I was when I accidentally wiped a friend’s copy of Lemmings by pressing a button at an inopportune moment. So the idea of a cheap stand-alone where collateral damage is limited has appeals. I figure it’d also be a way of seeing what a Linux environment is like without having to partition a hard drive.

Apart from an early foray into BASIC, I’d never written any code until I started to use Stata. These days I’ve gone from making syntax errors in every other line, to looking under the hood at installed packages to see exactly how certain aspects were defined. Next on the ‘to do’ list is learning R, and I may even dabble in a bit of C# before my studentship is out. It’s taken me a while to get to this level of competence, and I’m sure the process would have been faster if I’d had a better grounding in programming.

We had a ZX Spectrum at home when I was a kid, and though I did enjoy trying my hand at reproducing the programs in a friendly Usbourne book, I never branched out into writing my own. Perhaps because I never succeed in writing the code to permanent storage (on cassette tape), I was deterred from expending too much time or effort in tinkering. The rubber keys also weren’t terribly conducive to speedy and accurate typing! In contrast, a Raspberry Pi type device hooked up to a standard keyboard and a flat screen monitor would have been a delight.

I realise all this tech talk is a little off-piste compared to my usual posts. But I find myself wondering what the opportunities for using this hardware (and subsequent software) might be in health care settings. Now, there are already plenty of healthcare apps on the market, though not all are necessarily at the required standard. But although mobile phones are globally ubiquitous, smart phones have only part of the market share, and many of these apps are optimised for up to date hardware and operating systems.

The unique selling points of the RP are its size and cost. When might it be useful to give a dedicated laptop to a project, but the cost is prohibitive? What if you wanted to ship a piece of software to a number of different settings which had a wide range of operating systems so there could be compatability issues?

Here are a couple of ideas to get the ball rolling:

  • a simple/cheap way to introduce a standalone computer into settings where integrating your research tool into the existing network is logistically challenging. Having once tried to figure out how to get different NHS trusts to host a computerised decision support tool on their systems in a way that we could collect the usage data for research, I can see merit in the idea of being able to provide our own computers that we could have taken home at the end of the study. (Presumably a non-networked encrypted standalone would also address some data security concerns?)
  • delivering health education software to resource-poor settings. It’d be easier to write software that runs on a Raspberry Pi and send the whole thing to the intervention site, rather than trying to create a package that’s compatible with multiple versions of operating systems, or have something web-based which needs multi-browser compatibility and decent internet access. The Raspberry Pi is small enough that it could probably exploit the distribution networks tapped into by Colalife, although the rest of the hardware might be more of a challenge.

I’d be really interested in hearing other ideas for how to exploit these devices in health care and research. Over to you…

Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/websmith/ under Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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4 comments

  1. Daniel Shostak · · Reply

    I, too, am excited about RP, but I’m concerned about its utility in any clinical setting. In the developed world, the big anxiety about data driven health care is security/privacy. Of course this is unfortunate, but it is what it is.

    You are correct that a stand-alone system could improve security (eg real or abstract), but a small tech system that could be fit in a pocket does not fit the bill. I believe that it is still imperative that ‘clinical’ systems move the data as fast as possible to highly secure ‘central’ storage.

  2. Haha awesome I had a ZX Spectrum, and a Commodore 64 too!

    For me the value of the pi is that it’s super low-energy. If energy costs go up, which they will, it’s a cheaper way to get online, it looks powerful enough to use YouTube, play DVDs etc. You could probably link it and a small screen to a solar panel or something.

    Plus I generally tend to like things that are a bit different. 🙂

  3. @Warren – I hadn’t thought of the low energy angle. That could definitely be a selling point, particularly in settings where electricity supplies are limited or intermittent.

    @Daniel – I did wonder whether the size could also be a weakness in terms of vulnerability to stealing/loss. The experience which prompted me to consider this as a potential application was trying to get an electronic research questionnaire into busy clinics with little space and varying IT systems. Perhaps if there was somewhere devices could be locked at the end of the day it would be feasible. Essentially, the collection of electronic data in hospitals is a complex problem of which I realise my experience was only a taster.

  4. We need a small cheap screen that could be used with the RI. I can see many uses of such a hardware in public health

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