Heroes of Orbis: Kenneth Youngstein

Ken Youngstein first became part of the Orbis family back in 2012, bringing a lifetime of expertise in healthcare education and communication with him. Thanks to his dedication and commitment we are helping transform patient communication across the globe.

Breaking boundaries is something that comes naturally to Ken. At just 19, he began his doctoral studies and set off from the UK to Uganda to study the emerging field of primatology.

Ken Youngstein at the launch of The Singing Tree in Ethiopia

In 2018 Ken joined the Orbis family in Ethiopia to celebrate 20 years of working in partnership to deliver sight-saving work, and launch the Ethiopian edition of The Singing Tree.

Ken’s desire to develop a deeper understanding and get to the root of an issue helped him develop a curious mind. And it was this curiosity, coupled with his passion for finding simple, creative solutions to complex problems that brought him to study neuroscience and into the world of healthcare in the 1970s. Ever since then, Ken has been on a mission to transform the way healthcare education is delivered across the globe, setting up his specialist medical communications company Biocom in 1979.

His globetrotting career presents a dazzling list of accomplishments – from setting up a virus research laboratory in Liberia, to helping the Ministry of Health of China to revamp their medical education system at the end of the Cultural Revolution, and transforming patient communication within the organ donation service in the United States. Through all of this, his passion for education, communication and simple solutions shines through.

In 2012, Ken met a former Orbis executive at a family event in Switzerland. Four weeks later he was in South Africa working on his first project with our local partners and the Ministry of Health, creating a training “toolbox” to support the training of health workers so they can deliver care in the community and communicate effectively with their patients.

Ken Youngstein

One of the things that attract­ed me to Orbis from the begin­ning was their focus on edu­ca­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion – they got it… What I like most about them is this prin­ci­ple of we don’t go to show off, we go to show how!’, I real­ly appre­ci­ate Orbis for this, it res­onat­ed with me.”

This initial partnership led to the creation of The Singing Tree—a story book for children, designed to educate and inform communities about eye conditions and how to access sight-saving treatment. Today, The Singing Tree has been adapted for 11 countries, in 25 languages.

The Singing Tree has since been translated into Spanish

Adapting The Singing Tree for each country entailed more than translating the text. It required completely tailoring the book to each unique cultural setting: the characters, the family, the clothing, the homes, and then translating the text into local dialects. To achieve this, Ken worked closely with local Orbis teams and their partners. They decided that the central character should be a girl, to directly address issues of gender equality in access to healthcare.

I was surprised that the central storyline worked so well in such diverse cultures and locations, until we got to Mongolia”, says Ken. "It seems that there are not many trees in Mongolia. The team had to find a replacement for the singing tree, and one thing Mongolia has plenty of is grass – and grass has grasshoppers. So, in Mongolia, we produced 'Tuya and the Talking Grass.'" Ken told us.

In addition to the printed books, we have produced animated videos in Spanish, Hindi, and Mongolian, so far.

Ken Youngstein

It’s been real­ly a won­der­ful adven­ture cre­at­ing The Singing Tree. And It’s being dis­trib­uted through dif­fer­ent venues by health and edu­ca­tion min­istries, local hos­pi­tals, Orbis offices, part­ner orga­ni­za­tions, and schools too. So, it’s real­ly received tremen­dous distribution.”

The images below show school children in Nepal receiving their copies of The Singing Tree as part of our REACH program, which is helping children get the eye care they need.

In pre-COVID times, Ken would be out in the field, delivering training and changing lives through his innovative patient-centred approach to healthcare. During his time with Orbis, he has worked with many of our partners in India, Nepal, Myanmar, China, Ghana, Cameroon, Zambia, South Africa and many more countries to mentor, train and educate whole health teams and transform access to eyecare.

Ophthalmology is unique” Ken tells us. “You mostly deal with pediatric and geriatric cases (mostly trauma in the age groups in-between), so you are communicating with patients, care givers and decision-makers all at once – need to find ways to do this effectively”.

Using simple solutions is central to Ken’s philosophy—he tells us this is why he created the Eye Book. A simple guide, translated into multiple languages, designed to help eye care professionals communicate with their patients and family so they can understand what their condition is, how it will be treated and what they need to do to save their [or their child/family members] sight.

Ken Youngstein delivers a virtual training session on patient communication using Cybersight

Ken leads a virtual training workshop for eye care professionals on Cybersight

Ken Youngstein

I saw so many cas­es in my field work, of chil­dren with eye con­di­tions that could have been pre­vent­ed. With pedi­atrics, it’s all about tim­ing – every­one thinks it’s the same as an adult, but it’s not. Peo­ple don’t under­stand that kids have to learn to see, if you block vision from a child, the brain will not learn to see… And so this whole tim­ing issue is cru­cial – we need to get the mes­sag­ing right, so par­ents, teach­ers and com­mu­ni­ties under­stand and chil­dren get the eye­care they need.”

Over the past year, Ken had been scheduled to visit India, Mongolia, Peru, and Ghana with Orbis—but with the pandemic temporarily halting our face-to-face training, he has been and will continue to draw on his vast experience to deliver bespoke virtual training on patient communication to healthcare teams at Orbis partners in India.

Having already delivered lectures on Cybersight and pioneered the use of digital tools throughout his career to support multiple healthcare education programs, Ken’s vast experience and commitment to sharing his expertise is sure to inspire—and most importantly of all help those who need sight-saving treatment get the care they need.

Ken Youngstein

In the dig­i­tal space, we can drill down much more into orga­ni­za­tions than we pos­si­bly could before and reach more peo­ple than ever. We can trans­form train­ing from being an event into being a process, and we can cre­ate bet­ter, deep­er train­ing than was avail­able in the old par­a­digm. With its unique focus on edu­ca­tion, Orbis can be a vehi­cle for this!”

Throughout the pandemic, the importance of clear and effective communication has become more pressing than ever before—and thanks to Ken, tools such as the Orbis Eye Book and The Singing Tree series of children’s books are helping our dedicated network of volunteers and partners communicate effectively with their patients, spot the signs of avoidable blindness earlier, and deliver the highest standards of patient care.

When asked what he found most rewarding from his 10-year relationship with Orbis, the answer was simple: “The people.” He tells us that it has been such an honor and inspiration to meet the people who make up the Orbis global community: staff, local partners, volunteer surgeons, doctors, nurses, and technicians, the entire staff of the Flying Eye Hospital, and also the patients and their families. "Their dedication and courage never cease to amaze and humble me.”

We are so grateful to Ken, and his wife Ingrid, for being such dedicated members of the Orbis family. Through their Foundation for Health and Mind Development, they have provided not only the expertise for these projects, they have also provided financial support for the creation, production, and distribution. Thanks to their support and partnership we have been able to take our education outreach to new heights, helping save more people’s sight around the world.

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