College of Physicians and Surgeons Presents Highest Clinical Honor to Walter Franck, MD

Chris Kjolhede, MD, pediatrician and co-director of the Bassett School-Based Health Program, received the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award from the national School-Based Health Alliance June 24. The award recognizes "luminaries in the school-based health care field who have demonstrated a strong commitment to the mission of school-based health care ... who embody the spirit of innovation, dedication, and collaboration, and who go above and beyond to manifest the vision of quality school-based health care for all young people."

"Chris is most deserving of this honor," says Chief of Pediatrics Philip Heavner, MD. "His career has been spent in patient advocacy and the exploration of new paradigms of care that translate incredibly well to our population. His work has had immeasurable clinical benefit in our community, and has brought consistent praise to our organization."

In the mid-1990s, his penchant for patient advocacy led Dr. Kjolhede to pursue growing a new model of pediatric care that would provide services in schools throughout the counties served by Bassett, thereby assuring easy access to quality health care for students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Evolving the practice model
“We were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole of rural health care delivery,” recalls Dr. Kjolhede. “We wanted to expand the delivery of care from the pediatric clinic into the school setting, where the kids are.”

Dr. Kjolhede was joined in this effort by long-time SBH colleague and practice manager Jane Hamilton, and many others. The model they pursued included not just primary medical care, but mental health care as well.

In the decades since the program was first founded, it has grown to include 20 SBHCs in 16 school districts, and there are several schools on a waiting list to open a SBHC. Bassett’s school-based health services have expanded to include dental care and telemedicine, such as concussion consults and psychiatric counseling for students with complex needs. In fact, 30 percent of SBH visits are mental health visits. The total number of overall visits to SBH in 2018 was 37,054.

The ready availability of school-based health services has had a profound impact on the lives of the children and families enrolled in the program.

Making a difference
When asked about the faces and experiences that stick with him, among those Dr. Kjolhede recalls is a teenage girl who faced great obstacles. Despite her struggles, she “didn’t get pregnant, didn’t smoke or use drugs, didn’t fail, and she did graduate.” Without the intervention of the school-based health team and all the services and support it was able to provide throughout her school years, he says her story and those of countless other students would likely be very different.

“We make a difference and it is because of our committed staff," says Dr. Kjolhede.

There are no out-of-pocket expenses for families enrolled in school-based health, which allows the program to transcend the common barriers to ready access to good health care that exist in rural regions – climate, terrain, lack of insurance and a host of socio-economic factors.

Today, the Bassett School-Based Health Program is the largest rural program in New York State and a model for the rest of the country. Receiving the national School-Based Health Alliance’s Lifetime Achievement Award is perhaps the pinnacle for one of its staunchest proponents.

“The award underscores what our school-based health program has achieved, and it would not be possible without Bassett's board of trustees, administration, the pediatrics’ department and the dedicated members of the school-based health team. It is all very humbling.”