Raspberry Pi Health Care


Like many of you, I have been intently following the war in Ukraine, cheering for President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people, while hoping it doesn’t end up in WW3.  I thought about trying to write about it, then I saw that Raspberry Pi just turned ten, and I thought, yeah, that’s more my speed.

And, of course, easier to relate to healthcare.

For most of us, a computer is our smartphone, tablet, or laptop.  We buy them already designed and built, complete with an operating system and other useful software.  There’s an almost unlimited range of other software that can easily be downloaded to run on them.  Ease of use is paramount.  

This was not always so.  If you are of a certain age or have studied the history of computers, you’ll know that in the 1970s and early 1980s, (home) computers came in a kit.  You assembled them and figured out what you might want to use them for.  Then came Apple and the PC revolution. Our expectations about what computers could do grew as our expectations about what we had to do diminished.  Between 2006 and 2011, Eben Upton and his collaborators sought to change this.

They wanted to make a computer that was programmable, fun, affordable, and robust.  In 2012 – February 29, to be exact – they released the Raspberry Pi.  It sold for $35.  They hoped to sell perhaps 10,000 – 20,000 but sold over 1 million of them within a year. They’ve now sold over 45 million, making the Raspberry Pi one of the best-selling computers of all time. It comes in many different versions and price points, but all adhere to the four basic goals. 

As Mr. Upton now says: “In the ten years since, we’ve built a company, a charitable foundation, and a movement that has begun to change the world.”  The Raspberry Pi Foundation oversees the development, holds the intellectual property, and “works to put the power of computing and digital making into the hands of people all over the world.”

The Foundation is particularly focused on engaging young people:

We engage millions of young people in learning computing and digital making skills through a thriving network of clubs and events, and through partnerships with youth organizations. We enable any school to offer students the opportunity to study computing and computer science by providing the best possible curriculum, resources, and training for teachers. We work to deepen our understanding of how young people learn about computing and digital making, and to use that knowledge to increase the impact of our own work and to advance the field of computing education. We make computing and digital making accessible to all by providing low-cost, high-performance single-board computers and free software.

For example, Raspberry Pi recently released Introduction to Python path, introducing the widely used Python programming language to young coders, “designed to get young coders familiar with the underlying principles of ‘true’ programming languages used in the real world, such as syntax, using variables, and defining functions.” The initial projects involve games and animation to make them more familiar to young audiences. The target age range is 9 to 13.

Similarly, the European Astro Pi Challenge: Mission Zero allows young people to code experiments on the International Space Station, and/or send messages to the astronauts on it.  Fifty-four thousand young people have participated in previous Astro Pi challenges.

Their community is not just teen/pre-teen enthusiasts.  Cliff Saran, writing in Computer Weekly, points out:

It is amazing to see how the Pi has been used. From running music streaming and controlling robotics to operating high performance clusters, the Pi has fueled endless creativity and ingenuity. Some electric vehicle chargers and other smart devices use embedded Raspberry Pis. It has even been used in high performance computing.

As the Foundation brags, Raspberry Pi is now a “movement of millions of people of all ages and backgrounds.”

Some of those people are already using Raspberry Pis in healthcare, including various forms of monitoring, screening, and even MRI analyses. As Rob Zwetsloot of The MagPi 82 wrote, medical and health applications are “usually some of the most impressive displays that we see at Maker Faires, Coolest Projects, and other events where folks are showing off amazing projects.”

I love that Raspberry Pis are already being used to directly help improve health and healthcare, but I think the bigger benefit are those four principles that guide the movement — programable, fun, affordable, and robust.  

In healthcare, as has happened in computing, most of us have grown content to get the benefits while delegating how those benefit happen to a cadre of highly trained, very smart, expensive experts – physicians and other scientists in healthcare, computer programmers and scientists in computing.  

Raspberry Pi is here to say that, no, we can be those experts. We may not be able to do everything the experts can do, our products may not be as powerful or as sleek as the ones they develop, but there is a lot we can do.  Healthcare has a fledgling DIY movement (DIY pancreas, anyone?) that is gradually getting some acceptance from medical professionals, but it’s hardly embraced. We can do more.

Raspberry Pi is also here to say, start them early.  Kids love their screens, at ever younger ages. The Foundation’s work has shown that young people can be encouraged to tear themselves away from their slick devices in order to program for themselves. In a time when the health of our young people seems to be getting worse, where’s the equivalent movement to get kids more involved with, and excited about, their health?


I first wrote about Raspberry Pi six years ago, when the Raspberry Pi Zero came out, priced at $5. A computer for $5!  I asked, “Where’s our $5 EHR?  Where’s our $5 MRI?”  People in healthcare scoff at such idea, but people at Apple or Microsoft probable scoffed at the idea if a $5 computer too. 

I just read today how “China has embarked on a technology-led revolution to create a brand-new health care ecosystem.”  For example, it has “internet hospitals” whose services “are almost entirely online.”  Those are approaches Raspberry Pi could understand, but not, apparently, U.S. healthcare.    

Some look at Raspberry Pi and see a toy.  I look at it and wonder if what it can tell us about the future of healthcare.

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.