Third-year MSUCOM student recognized with 2022 Excellence in Public Health and Individual Excellence in Advocacy awards


The last week of April was a big one for Courtney Merlo, OMS-III.

On Monday, April 25, Merlo received the 2022 Excellence in Public Health Award, a prestigious national honor from the United States Public Health Service Physician Professional Advisory Committee recognizing a medical student’s contribution to public health.

That same day, she was confirmed as the president of the National Student Osteopathic Medical Association (SOMA) for the coming year. Just one day after that, she received the Individual Excellence in Advocacy Award at the American Osteopathic Association DO Day — an organized advocacy event where medical students and practitioners meet with legislators to discuss issues relevant to osteopathic medicine.

The awards and leadership role come as no surprise to colleagues, faculty and staff who know her. “Courtney has excelled through the rigors of medical school while balancing her exemplary commitment to the community,” shares Brooke-Lynn Vij, the academic and career guidance advisor who nominated Merlo for the public health award. “Courtney’s leadership style is best characterized by her commitment to supporting her peers, her innovative and strategic thinking and engaging in compassionate service to others.”  

In Vij’s nomination, she explained, “Courtney is truly exceptional. She goes above and beyond in the service of her community, in her pursuit of academic excellence and in the practice of the tenets of osteopathic medicine.”

Protecting public health by increasing access to PPE

Merlo’s initiative to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to high-need areas during the pandemic played a major part in earning the Excellence in Public Health Award. In early 2020, when health systems were struggling to secure enough PPE for front-line personnel and supply chains abruptly stopped, Merlo and Jennifer LeRose, OMS-III, co-founded DET Needs PPE.

Within six months, the organization mobilized an unconventional coalition of more than 70 volunteers from multiple Michigan medical schools and organizations to procure and distribute an estimated 115,000–120,000 face shields, face masks, gowns, shoe covers and bouffants to over 37 Michigan counties and 240 health care facilities. They also raised over $15,000 to purchase additional PPE items for distribution. Merlo credits a donation of 50,000 face shields from Boston Scientific for the early success of the endeavor.

Through grassroots outreach and using Twitter, Merlo and LeRose enlisted volunteer pilots to bring PPE to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and to Native American tribes in New Mexico and Texas. “We heard about the need among indigenous nations, so we got in touch with volunteer pilots to fly the PPE to those reservations,” Merlo explained.

The duo also coordinated with a motorcycle club to obtain PPE from the greater Chicago area to bring back to Michigan, marshalled personal contacts to secure a warehouse and a semi-truck to house the supplies before transit, and coordinated local deliveries.

“Who knew I’d come to medical school to learn about supply chain management?” Merlo joked.

The group also sent PPE to Malawi — one of the college’s global health medical trip locations — through classmates in December 2020.

Other volunteers critical to the success of the initiative included students from MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine and the College of Human Medicine’s Public Health master’s program; Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, which donated trucks for delivery; Wayne State University; Angels Wear Gowns, a church group from Brighton that made gowns out of plastic rolls they purchased from Home Depot; and Operation Face Shield, a group from the University of Michigan whose engineering department printed 3D face shields.  

After committing over 650 volunteer hours each, the group wound down operations by fall 2020 as supply chains resumed and health systems were able to procure the needed PPE to keep personnel safe.

But Merlo wasn’t done yet. She and LeRose teamed up with classmates Phong Duong, OMS-III, and Kelsi Harden, OMS-III, to publish a paper about the role of social vulnerability index in PPE shortages. They discovered that areas with higher socioeconomic vulnerability required more core necessity items, such as face shields and masks, while less socially vulnerable areas needed items, such as shoe covers and bouffants.

Advocating for medical students and patients

In her role as National SOMA President, Courtney supports and facilitates growth in her peers.

“The goal of National SOMA is to promote the growth of the osteopathic profession through advocacy,” she explained. “We work to amplify the medical student voice. I like to think of my position as empowering the national leaders, chapter leaders and local membership. They drive the vision. I help make it happen by reaching out to stakeholders and doing what I can to bring their ideas to life.”

Two of the issues the group is focusing on are reducing stigmatizing language in lectures, such as “mental retardation,” and advocating for informed consent for pelvic exams completed under anesthesia.

Merlo held the Region III trustee and president-elect position for the 2021-22 academic year and served as the 2020-21 MSUCOM SOMA president.
Merlo’s advocacy also includes direct connections with legislators. At the 2022 AOA DO Day, she and others spoke with Michigan legislators in Washington, D.C., on a range of topics: expanding telemedicine, delaying Medicare sequestration cuts and providing incentivized loan forgiveness for medical students who go on to work in rural health positions. “I’ve advocated alongside AOA virtually for the past two years. It was a great experience to finally speak to legislators in person — and get a tour of the building,” she said.
Additional community work

On top of balancing schoolwork and leadership roles, Merlo’s commitment to improving community health has included volunteering at the mobile McLaren Health Care Macomb Medical Outreach Clinic to provide free health care to uninsured members of the community, as well as with the college’s Detroit Street Care group to provide care and supplies to Detroit’s population experiencing homelessness. She accumulated over 500 community service hours in her pre-clinical years of medical school alone.

Merlo also manages the social media accounts for the “D.O. or Do NOT” podcast, which features interviews with osteopathic physicians, residents and medical students to inspire pre-meds to pursue an osteopathic medical education and explore specialty careers as a DO.

The energetic rising fourth year is completing her clinical rotations at Henry Ford Wyandotte in Detroit, where she volunteers with the hospital’s free clinic for the working uninsured.

Next year, she plans to apply to an emergency medicine residency program and hopes to match in Michigan. “I grew up here and I would love care for the people here.”