A Conversation with CHASP Faculty Fellow Dr. Michael Hole
Dr. Michael Hole grew up in a rural, 843-person town called Darlington, Indiana. A self-proclaimed Hoosier, he is a first-generation college graduate and first in his family to travel outside the United States. His father, a Captain for the Indiana State Police, worked as an undercover detective at KKK rallies and wartime riots, ran sting operations recovering stolen cars and drugs, and posed as a hit man. His mother was a caretaker for the elderly and dying in their town, living out his family’s Christian faith by example. Dr. Hole cites his parents’ public service careers as strong, consistent influences growing up.
Dr. Hole’s own service to vulnerable communities reflects that influence. He chose to focus on children in poverty after his first year in college, when he traveled to Ecuador on a medical brigade. As he worked one day, a young boy carried his younger sister down a mountainside to the brigades’ makeshift health clinic. The little girl had sepsis and the doctors saved her life. But Dr. Hole credits the little boy’s journey for sparking his life’s work.
“Because of where he was born and no other fault that little boy was afforded no other choice than to trek down a mountain to save his sister’s life. I saw myself in him, and the contrast between our lives and opportunities changed me, broke my heart. So I’ve been picking up the pieces of that heart ever since, trying to build them into organizations, policies, and movements with the potential to improve options for kids like him.”
Dr. Hole worked as a case manager for a social services organization through college. He focused on fighting child trafficking in rural America, while also helping to manage a shelter for women and child victims of domestic violence. As a senior at Butler University, Dr. Hole founded Power of Children, which started a school in sub-Saharan Africa in partnership with a stateside nonprofit and Uganda’s Ministry of Education. While earning his MD and MBA at Stanford University, he started Be Haiti, which helped fund an orphanage for disabled kids abandoned during Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and a new food product treating malnourished children globally.
Dr. Hole came to The University of Texas at Austin from Harvard, where he trained to be a pediatrician. Today, he is joint faculty at Dell Medical School and the LBJ School of Public Affairs. “I have a wonderful, very privileged balance of responsibilities,” he says.
Dr. Hole notes three main jobs. First, he is a doctor onboard Children’s Health Express, a mobile clinic offering medical and social services to Austin’s hardest-to-reach children and street youths. “This part of my job keeps me grounded, and importantly, it’s my window to our communities’ social problems and current solutions.” Second, he is Director of Social Entrepreneurship for Texas Health CoLab, a university hub for innovation. In this role, he builds a portfolio of companies addressing social issues, such as poverty and homelessness, harming health. Finally, he teaches business and public policy to graduate students from seven different schools at The University of Texas at Austin. “The students’ energy is palpable. And not just for football!” he notes. At the end of Dr. Hole’s class, the “student-entrepreneurs” pitch their business plans for new start-up ventures improving children’s health to a panel of experts and potential funders in a “Shark Tank” format.
This multi-faceted, interdisciplinary career encapsulates Dr. Hole’s advice for college and graduate students. He practices what he preaches. According to Dr. Hole, solutions to society’s biggest problems will be found where sectors cross. “There is power at the intersection of disciplines to change longstanding systemic injustices,” he advocates. “Pay attention to the problems that break your heart, then seek solutions alongside people outside your expertise.” Dr. Hole also mentioned the power of listening and empathy. He explains, “People actually facing the problems we’re trying to solve understand those problems best. Partnerships with community members are crucial.”
As policymakers, both in Texas and nationally, move to address some of our society’s systemic issues, Dr. Hole’s advice seems especially poignant. When asked about society’s greatest challenges, he listed climate change, nuclear threats, and the national debt’s growing interest, but he said other important issues, such as unaffordable healthcare and housing, educational inequities, and growing wealth and racial divides, will persist until we scrap status quo approaches to solving them.
Uniting many of these issues is access to services. As Dr. Hole pointed out, the U.S. has many evidence-based programs in-place to address social challenges, but many of them are underused because of access barriers. In 2016, Dr. Hole co-founded StreetCred, which works to close the gap for people eligible for but not receiving the Earned Income Tax Credit, one of America’s most effective anti-poverty government programs. StreetCred files low-income families’ taxes in doctor’s offices, taking advantage of patients’ wasted time in waiting rooms. Since launch, he and his team have helped 1,700 low-income families claim more than $3.3 million in tax refunds.
Healthcare would benefit greatly from a multidisciplinary approach, too. As Dr. Hole explains, “Poverty makes people sick while driving up healthcare costs. We have to look upstream if we truly want to help people get and stay healthy.” He gives an example of a hospital paying for housing for homeless patients, which saves money by helping those patients avoid expensive emergency room visits. Policymakers need to “garner the message that social factors impact health” and put in-place policies addressing diseases’ root causes, such as low income, inaccessible healthy food, and unsafe housing.
Dr. Hole is the kind of doctor, teacher, and person who makes those with whom he interacts want to help others. Austin and students like me are fortunate to have him. Luckily for us, he plans on sticking around for a while, continuing his outreach with compassion and wisdom.
Emma Nye is a first-year candidate for the Master of Public Affairs (DC Concentration) and CHASP Ambassador at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She is a cum laude graduate in Rhetoric Studies from Whitman College. Emma is interested in improving access to mental healthcare, particularly in communities with high rates of substance abuse. As an undergraduate, Emma worked at the local hospital, which kindled her interest in the intersection of drug abuse and psychiatric health. After graduating, Emma continued her work in the medical industry at Cape Cod Healthcare. She also assisted in research on Congressional voting and public opinion at the Kennedy School at Harvard University, where she examined mental care and approaches to drug use from a policy standpoint. Emma hopes to work in advocacy for greater accessibility to and coverage of mental healthcare, especially for those who have a criminal history of substance abuse.