Holly Campbell, MPH, RN

The best way to create a fulfilling career is to move forward. From pre-med to public health to nursing school, Holly Campbell may think that she “did things backward.” It turns out she was charting a path to do what she loves in a public health career where she combines her nursing background with health promotion and disease prevention. 

Learn more about Holly's public health work in northern Michigan. 

It was a tough job market when I graduated from the College of Human Medicine Master of Public Health program in 2011. The jobs I wanted to do meshed medicine with public health in a hospital setting and required a nursing degree. So, I enrolled in an accelerated Bachelor of Science Nursing program.

After graduating, I hit the ground running and went to the ICU. I needed that adrenaline rush and was chasing the most complex patients.

In the nurse role, I felt like I was failing my patients. It was task after task for short periods. And then my patients were off to rehab, or they were moving to a different floor. There was never a setup for true success after discharge. I experienced this disconnect at the hospital that I felt could address within communities before people ended up in the hospital for bariatric and post-bariatric surgery.

My public health background helped me see patients lying in their beds at the end of their lives and wondering what happened. In the U.S., how did we fail? How did the public health system fail that person?

I started making this shift internally, that I needed to go to the public health sector and move out of that acute care setting. I wanted to make a difference before the patient is at the end of life due to obesity and comorbidity conditions such as early-stage heart disease, diabetes, and peripheral vascular disease.

Public Health is Prevention

I know that so much of obesity is genetics, environment, and the social determinants of health. I remember thinking, “if we could have done something early, in preschool or elementary school, and throughout the lifespan, maybe we could have prevented them from having to have a surgical intervention to combat their obesity in the first place.”

Before I became a nurse, I didn't know how entwined nursing is with public health. Upstream prevention will help people live longer, healthier lives. When a job at a local health department opened, I moved back home to build a stronger community through the health department. I wanted to improve quality of life outcomes before the patient was in the hospital.

My public health education helped me shift my career from the acute care setting as an ICU nurse to a district health department. Now, I am at the Health Department in Northwest Michigan (HDNW), where we serve 100,000 residents in the “tip of the mitten” in Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, and Otsego counties.

On the Job

As the deputy health officer, my day involves operational leadership. I work on everything from budget management and supporting the division directors to being the health department dental liaison with Dental Clinics North.

Dental services are a large part of HDNW’s public health mission. Across northern Michigan, there are nine dental clinics north that serve approximately 30,000 people per year. Medicaid beneficiaries, especially in northern Michigan, have a need for a dental home. The wait for a new patient to see a dentist can be up to six months in some locations. Through the partnership of local public health and dental, we are able to meet the needs of northern Michiganders.

HDNW provides many different services to the community, from WIC and the Maternal Infant Health Program to mental and physical health services at the Child and Adolescent Health Centers to septic and well use and substance use prevention.  

The beauty of public health is there are so many different avenues and things you can do. And there's always something that's up and coming.

COVID-19 Pandemic Response
Two months before the pandemic took hold of the world – I started working as a family health supervisor overseeing the immunization clinics. This position combined my nursing role with public health. I was excited.

When the COVID-19 vaccines started coming out, my responsibility was to plan mass vaccination clinics with a cross-sector team. Who would have thought that this emergency preparedness class I took at Michigan State University would become so critical? At the time of the course, it all seemed like a far-off idea, like a simulation that wouldn't ever happen - until it did, in a big way.

When we were aware that the COVID-19 pandemic was here, we shifted into the incident command structure, our emergency preparedness plan. We organized every detail of the mass vaccination clinics and administered nearly 70,000 vaccines in rural northern Michigan.

The pandemic shed light on the infrastructure problems and gaps in the workforce. We held mass clinics throughout the community by partnering with schools, local townships, and churches to identify big open spaces to run, 8 to 10 lanes of people through registration, get their vaccine, and then wait 15 minutes. At first, putting 500 or 600 people through was a struggle, but after a few clinics, we had it down to a science.  

There was a lot of good that came out of the pandemic too. We acquired a mobile unit and were able to renovate and expand the Northern Michigan Regional Laboratory, which is housed in our Otsego County location. The mobile unit gave us the capability to go out into the community to do COVID-19 testing and vaccination. Another positive outcome of the pandemic has been building relationships with the schools in our jurisdiction. The Health Resource Advocate funding that encouraged nurses in schools for COVID-19 response support has now turned into a whole School-Based Nursing Program. Nursing and public health continue to be intermingled in my world.

My Master of Public Health Program at Michigan State University taught me a lot of leadership skills that have carried me through some complex challenges and adversities. Being comfortable in the uncomfortable is a key takeaway that Connie Currier, DrPH, MPH, assistant professor, helped me to develop while in Ghana. This lesson has guided me throughout the pandemic and served me throughout my public health career. Being uncomfortable has forced a growth mindset, innovative ideas, and an attitude of perseverance. MSU graduates will continue to move the needle in public health.

Holly Campbell, MPH ‘11, RN
Deputy Health Officer
Health Department in Northwest Michigan


August 25, 2022