UTHSC/Le Bonheur Pediatrician Prescribes Books for All His Patients

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Dr. Jason Yaun has made it his mission to help instill a love of reading in all his patients. (Photo by Lisa Buser)

Memphis pediatrician Jason Yaun is committed to caring for the bodies and the minds of his patients.

A graduate of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Medicine, Dr. Yaun, 35, is an assistant professor of pediatrics at UTHSC and a physician in the General Pediatrics Department at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.

Born and raised in Memphis, he says he feels a calling to take care of the children in his hometown.

“It was during my pediatrics residency training at UTHSC, when I was trying to decide what to do from there and what to do with the rest of my life, that I really just felt a heart to take care of the children of Memphis,” he says. “So that led me to a passion of not just general pediatrics, but advocacy and being involved in the community.”

Always an avid reader, he has transformed his personal passion into a community mission, as a champion of early childhood literacy.

The father of two, a daughter, 6, and a son, 10, Dr. Yaun recalls lying in bed at night as a child trying to read by flashlight or the light in a hallway, after his parents put him to bed. “My love for reading is something that was instilled in me at a very early age,”’ he says. “I think there are all these great literacy programs out there, but most of them focus on school-age kids, and that’s generally too late.”

He had heard about Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 at what is now Boston Medical Center to give free books to children from infancy to school age through physician offices. “I was looking at all the literature, all the evidence behind it, and just got really passionate about it,” he says. “So while I was still actually a resident, knowing that I was going to stay on as faculty here, I worked to get funding to start a Reach Out and Read program here in our clinic.”

Now, at UT Le Bonheur Pediatric Specialists, the outpatient resident teaching practice at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, all children from six months old to age 5 gets a free book chosen for them by their physician at every well-patient visit.

Plastic tubs filled with books, sorted for appropriate age, language, and content, line the walls of his office and are in the physician workroom. “The idea is the physician actually gives the book,” Dr. Yaun says. “It’s not like a sticker at the end of the visit. It is supposed to be brought in by the doctor. That way, the doctor is a trusted messenger and can give the message of early literacy.”

Parents receive instruction about the importance of reading aloud every day to their child, and learn that as their child’s first teacher, they are not only building literacy skills, but also social and emotional skills.

“Really, we’re talking about building brains from the critical time from birth to three years old,” Dr. Yaun says.

Jon McCullers, MD, chair of Pediatrics at UTHSC and pediatrician-in-chief at Le Bonheur, says Dr. Yaun, with his quiet and analytical personality, has excelled at growing into his role as a leader, progressing from student, to resident, to chief resident, to faculty member and director of the resident clinic and overseeing the pediatric physicians in the outpatient clinic.

“At each stage, it has been this careful consideration prior to commitment, followed by exceptional performance beyond expectations,” Dr. McCullers says.

According to Dr. McCullers, all pediatric faculty are expected to have an interest in academic pursuits beyond their clinical duties. “Through his early career experiences in the clinic, he developed an interest in early childhood literacy,” Dr. McCullers says, describing Dr. Yaun. “Again, after a period of analysis and contemplation, he jumped in. He is now becoming recognized as a leader in this field across the state, and will eventually have a national profile. Truly a rapid success story in an important area, and one of our most promising young faculty.”

Dr. Yaun is the president of the Mid-South Pediatric Society, and is active in the Tennessee Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics as a Fellow-at-Large representing West Tennessee.

He is also working with community partners to expand Reach Out and Read in Memphis, and has secured funding to launch the program at Christ Community Health Services.

Since 2015, Dr. Yaun has served on the board of Books from Birth, the Shelby County organization to promote kindergarten readiness and strengthen family bonds by providing age-appropriate books for all children from birth to age five. That program and the national Reach Out and Read program offer assistance in getting the books to distribute to Dr. Yaun’s young patients.  

“Reach Out and Read has a partnership with Scholastic on a national level, so we get books at a very deep discount,” he says. Funding also comes from the Urban Child Institute in Memphis.

“We also have books in the waiting room that kids can read, or that parents can read to their children, and we get those books from book drives, or we get them from Books from Birth,” he says.

His program is happy to accept books donated for the waiting room. They can be dropped off at the clinic at 51 North Dunlap, Suite 350. Volunteers to read books aloud to patients, siblings, and family members prior to clinic appointments are also welcome. For more information, visit lebonheur.org/ror.

Evidence from literacy programs including Reach Out and Read suggests they yield benefits that last a lifetime, Dr. Yaun says. “Not only does reading give children communication skills and literacy skills, but it also serves as a buffer against adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress by promoting nurturing relationships.”

Editor’s note: This story was first published in the Fall 2017 issue of Tennessee Alumnus.