What Burning Man Can Teach Healthcare

Kim BellardOh, good: it's Burning Man week.  For some people, it's the highlight of the year, an expression of creativity, community, and freedom unlike any other.  It's Woodstock, Fashion Week, and the Fringe Festival all rolled together, only set in the Nevada desert.

For others, it is 70,000 wannabe hippies/hipsters gathering together for a week of hard partying: public nudity, drugs, and sex, plus burning some "art." 

Either way, it couldn't possibly have anything to teach healthcare, right? 

Maybe.  But what many do not realize is that Burning Man espouses ten guiding principles, and it is worth taking a look at those and how they could or should be applied to healthcare. 

Radical Inclusion

Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

Healthcare translation: Healthcare is fully of hierarchies.  Doctors know more than nurses, clinicians know more than administrators, and everyone knows more than patients.  Just stop it: we each know something of value, and no one knows more about a patient's health than the patient.  We have to learn how to share and use all that knowledge.


Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

Healthcare translation: Whether we planned it or not, healthcare has gone from acts of compassion to a business.  There is still plenty of compassion, thankfully, but each has to be weighed against its effect on the bottom line.  Let's get back to the focus on doing the right thing, unconditionally, not on the profitable thing.

Scenes from the 2013 Burning Man festival - By vsross - BMDVS-126, CC BY 2.0Decommodification

In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Healthcare translation: Tired of seeing healthcare ads?  Tired of reading about healthcare CEO salaries?  Tired of "non-profit" healthcare organizations making lots of money?  It's time to care less about the commercial aspects and more on the participatory experience of helping people be healthy. 

Radical Self-reliance

Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

Healthcare translation: Doctors don't make us healthy.  Hospitals don't make us healthy.  Drugs don't make us healthy. They each play important roles, but it is up to each of us to figure out our path towards our best health.  How do we help people do that?

Radical Self-expression

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

Healthcare translation: Movements like DYI health or bio-hacking are often seen by mainstream medicine as misguided at best and dangerous at worse.  There certainly are risks that need to be recognized, but also benefits.  Health care treatments are not going to remain exclusively in the control of health care professionals; that is scary to some, but should be seen as opportunities for everyone. 

Communal Effort

Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Healthcare translation: Healthcare should be all about cooperation and collaboration.  Unfortunately, it isn't.  It is too often about silos and competition, turf and control.  That has to stop.  Our health is better with cooperation and collaboration with others. 

Civic Responsibility

We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

Healthcare translation: It is easy to only care about our own health.  It is easy for healthcare professionals to focus only on the health of the people they treat.  But we all must recognize that most of what drives our health comes from outside the healthcare system.  Taking responsibility for social determinants of health and other matters of public welfare is essential.

Leaving No Trace

Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

Healthcare translation: What is the environmental footprint of our healthcare system?  Think of all those buildings, all those parking lots, all those devices, all the byproducts (e.g., medical waste).  What are we doing to the community, the environment, and the future? 


Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

Healthcare translation: Healthcare is still struggling to be "patient-centered."  The fact that it might be thought of as anything else shows how far off it is in terms of participation.  Healthcare is also still too much of a "white man's" world.  The voices of patients, the voices of women and minorities, the voices of those not actively seeking (or not able to obtain) care -- all must be heard. 


Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

Healthcare translation: Too much of our health is in the future.  "I'll start my diet tomorrow."  "I'll think about a living will when I'm old."  "My doctor can just give me a pill."  Our health starts today.  Our sense of it now drives what it can be tomorrow.  The more we are aware of it in the immediate, the more reminded we are of how connected it is to the people and things around us.  Experience health now.

Burning Man is not just an event that happens in a given place for a given time.  It is a "culture of possibility."  And, yes, those possibilities are things healthcare can learn from. 

What Burning Man Can Teach Healthcare was authored by Kim Bellard and first published in his blog, From a Different Perspective.... It is reprinted by Open Health News with permission from the author. The original post can be found here.