Nationwide Children's Tim Robinson leads hospital through its most challenging times

Kathy Lynn Gray
For Columbus CEO
Nationwide Children's Hospital CEO Tim Robinson photographed in front of the Big Lots Behavioral Health Pavilion on Monday, September 13, 2021.

Tim Robinson had a huge legacy to live up to when he became Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s chief executive officer.

He was following the beloved and well-respected Dr. Steve Allen, who retired in June 2019 after 13 years of explosive hospital growth that had positioned the facility as a national leader in pediatric health. As the hospital’s chief financial officer, Robinson was a key member of Allen’s team and one of the expansion’s architects.

But he wasn’t a physician, and many members of the search committee for Allen’s replacement were convinced that only a physician could fill Allen’s shoes. A nationwide search unearthed compelling candidates, some physicians and some not. And yet the committee and the hospital board selected Robinson, a finance pro with deep knowledge and experience from 24 years in the hospital’s top tier of leadership.

“It was so natural for the next leader to be Tim,” explains Dr. Mark Galantowicz, chief of cardiothoracic surgery, co-director of the Heart Center at Nationwide Children’s and a search-committee member. “I had zero concern about him not being a physician, because he’s been such a catalyst for so many of the elements of the hospital’s growth. He got the job because of the historical respect he’s continued to build in this institution.”

Robinson, 63, had climbed the hospital ladder quickly, transitioning from 13 years with national shoe retailer Kobacker Co. to become an assistant treasurer at Nationwide Children’s in 1995. Two years later, he was promoted to senior vice president and chief financial officer and in 2008, he became executive vice president and chief financial and administrative officer, which included overseeing information technology, community relations and international affairs. One of his achievements has been to maintain an Aa2 bond rating for the hospital—the highest mark of financial performance—since 2001.

“He’s been right in the middle of healthcare for a really long time, and he was a person who met all the criteria: being an innovator, being a change manager and being able to lead the hospital’s culture,” said search committee chair Alex Fischer at the time. Fischer, CEO of the Columbus Partnership and chairman of the hospital board, described Robinson as a humble consensus builder who clearly fit in with Nationwide Children’s “team sport” leadership tradition.

How Nationwide Children's has dealt with COVID-19 and medical racism

Robinson took over as CEO on July 1, 2019. Just seven months later, news of the impending pandemic began circulating and hospitals, researchers and healthcare providers faced one of the most challenging times of their existence. Then, months into the pandemic, the nation—and the hospital system—faced a second crisis: the racial reckoning spurred by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in the summer of 2020.

“It’s been a challenging time for sure, but always at the center we were trying to keep our patients and their families and our staff safe,” says Robinson.

Perhaps the CEO’s biggest strength during these times has been his steadiness.

“Tim Robinson has been a compelling leader, leading with great insight and boldness through two of the most substantial issues of our time: COVID and racism,” says Dr. John Barnard, president of the hospital’s Abigail Wexner Research Institute. “He’s led with great acumen, and I’ve only escalated my view of him these past two years.”

Among the hospital’s pandemic efforts: A COVID-19 hotline answered more than 100,000 calls; telehealth visits that skyrocketed to more than 360,000 from March 2020 to March 2021; virtual meetings that grew from 40 in February 2020 to 291,000 in the first three weeks of February 2021; the development of in-house COVID-19 testing capabilities; and ongoing work to find the best treatments for children affected by the virus.

The treatment efforts have grown more intense in the past two months as the delta variant of COVID-19 has become dominant and a greater number of children have gotten the virus. On top of that, other respiratory viruses that generally surface in the winter, such as RSV, have been surging in late summer, Robinson says.

“The systems are being taxed significantly and it’s a marathon,” he says.

At the same time, Robinson and other hospital leaders have taken a deep dive into the country’s racial issues. They started, he says, by listening and learning.

“This is not a time to be reactionary and shoot from the hip, and Tim hasn’t done that,” explains Barnard. “He’s steady, reliable, dependable and contemplative, all good characteristics for a leader at a time when one needs good decision-making.”

To address racial inequities, the hospital-wide Stand Against Racism/Stand for Health Equity initiative was established with goals that include employee education in bias, racism and inclusiveness; cultivating a diverse workforce; advocating for social justice; and finding and eliminating gaps in equitable healthcare delivery.

“Health equity has always been at the hospital’s core,” Robinson says. “With the murder of George Floyd, there was an awakening we all went through, and it became apparent there was so much more work to do.” He says that includes addressing disparities in all the work done at the hospital, removing any bias and educating the next generation of caregivers so that bias and inequity isn’t present.

Galantowicz says Robinson “rolled up his sleeves and got knee deep” into the racial awakening, setting the tone for the institution as a whole to embrace the moment as a time of self-reflection and change.

“He, like me, is an old white guy, and his depth of passion and empathy for diversity and tolerance and inclusiveness spills into the community in a remarkable way,” Galantowicz says. “Part of that reaction goes back to the fact that he comes at this job not so much as a leader sitting at the top and mandating down, but fundamentally his DNA is: ‘I am with you; you are all a part of this.’ And that resonated.”

Galantowicz says Robinson’s ability to envision healthcare in a progressive way was one reason he came to Nationwide Children’s in 2002 to head the department of cardiothoracic surgery.

“I had a vision for the hospital to have this full heart center that would involve having all the people together who would touch a baby who had heart problems, so that everyone was truly under one umbrella,” Galantowicz says. “That was very different from how things were structured prior to that, and it was a whole different way of looking at strategic development. But Tim was a big, big piece of making that change.”

Naysayers thought the new structure would be costly and wouldn’t work, but they were wrong, he says, noting that the Heart Center brings in more than $2 million in annual profit for the hospital now.

“Tim’s always been right in the center of all that big strategy and big vision,” Galantowicz says.

The hospital will double down on core services, such as cancer and heart treatments

That vision continues with a new, $3.3 billion, five-year plan that hospital leadership announced in 2021. It includes a new in-patient hospital tower with 302 beds, a new orthopedic and surgery center and two more research buildings as well as $1.3 billion in new or expanded programs and research.

Funds from ospital operations, investment return, debt and donations will pay for the new plan.

“If we do this well, we’re not only going to impact the children of central Ohio, but we’re going to truly impact children everywhere, whether it’s through treatment, new discoveries or teaching the next generation of providers that we can impact children across the globe,” Robinson says.

Under the new plan, the hospital will double down on core services such as treatments for cancer and heart issues, so more children can be served, he says. At the same time, the hospital will expand care in areas such as fetal medicine by providing more physical space and expertise.

“We really think we can improve outcomes by going upstream, if you will, with in utero interventions,” says Robinson. That could include fetal surgeries for conditions such as spina bifida and other rare diseases.

Nationwide Children's Hospital CEO Tim Robinson photographed in front of the Big Lots Behavioral Health Pavilion on Monday, September 13, 2021.

Overall, Robinson says, the new plan sits on a platform of quality and safety, “maniacally focused on making sure kids truly get the best outcomes.”

With Robinson as CEO, two equity efforts already have been expanded.

Partners for Kids, which Robinson spearheaded more than 25 years ago to improve healthcare access for children in southeastern and south central Ohio, has been extended to include west central Ohio, adding 94,000 children to the 325,000 who already are part of the program. It helps children covered by Medicaid, focusing on preventative care and managing chronic conditions.

Healthy Neighborhood Healthy Families, which Robinson was instrumental in starting and maintaining, also is growing. Under the program, more than $50 million has been invested in the neighborhood south of the hospital to improve living conditions, including home renovations, health assessment and employment help, since 2008. That effort, which spurred additional efforts by the city and community organizations, is being expanded to the Linden neighborhood as part of a drive to address social determinants of health, particularly in poorer areas.

More:Nationwide Children's aims to boost health by improving homes in Columbus neighborhoods

Robinson says it will include a new food market, housing initiatives, workforce development programs and other improvements community members are identifying.

Galantowicz says Robinson’s support of the research arm at Nationwide Children’s also has impressed him.

“It’s not common for a freestanding children’s hospital to invest so heavily in those missions,” he says. “It would have been very easy for a financial guy to say: ‘Show me how this makes sense financially.’”

But Robinson understood that investment in research mattered because it was the right thing to do for children.

“Even though he was an accountant nerd, this big picture of how it all fit in was part of his DNA,” Galantowicz says. “He was hugely in support of the research and it has grown and grown and grown.”

One of the newest research efforts is a $1.1 billion project, announced in February, that pairs Nationwide Children’s, JobsOhio and Ohio State University to develop new gene and cell therapies to treat genetic disorders. The hospital has its own Center for Gene Therapy, a research arm that has been growing in recent years as researchers work to cure genetic childhood diseases such as spinal muscular atrophy. The work has drawn patients, researchers and companies to Ohio as progress is made.

That includes Andelyn Biosciences, a biosciences company created through Nationwide Children’s research into cell and gene-based therapy. The company plans to open central Ohio’s first commercial-scale production facility for cell and gene therapies next year.

Barnard says one reason Robinson works so hard on efforts to give every child an equal chance at good health is his Midwestern upbringing, in Cincinnati and then on a farm in Indiana.

“His humble origins are deeply meaningful to him, and he hasn’t strayed from those roots in many ways even as he’s leading some of the most sophisticated child-health innovations in North America,” Barnard says. “From those beginnings have come extraordinary leadership capabilities and a unique skill set.”

Robinson himself isn’t one to dwell on his upbringing, except to say that he believes his core values were strongly influenced by his father, who was a fireman before he became a farmer, and an older sister, who headed the Cincinnati YWCA.

Nationwide Children's Hospital CEO Tim Robinson photographed in front of the Big Lots Behavioral Health Pavilion on Monday, September 13, 2021.

At the hospital, he pointed to the work in behavioral health that Nationwide Children’s has done in the past few years as one of the things he is most proud of.

He ticks off some facts: One in five children has a diagnosed mental health condition. Suicide rates among young people are rising. The pandemic has exacerbated mental health problems.

Early last year, Nationwide Children’s opened the freestanding Big Lots Behavioral Health Pavilion with a psychiatric crisis department, a stabilization department, an inpatient psychiatric unit and an intensive outpatient program.

More:Big Lots Behavioral Health Pavilion fosters hope

“There’s some real challenges out there and to have that resource, especially in the pandemic, helps to bring mental health on par with physical health and breaks down the stigma of mental health issues,” Robinson says. “They’ve done a great job there with a continuum of care that we think is right, and we’ll continue to expand that.”

Research into mental health in children is part of the effort, resulting in some world-class research funded by significant investments that Robinson hopes will provide better tools to diagnose and treat mental health in children in the future.

“We always get back to that: finding what’s best for the children,” he says.

His own three children and, more recently, his first grandchild, have only made him redouble his efforts.

“You look at things through the lens of a child, and having a young, vulnerable child in your life reinforces the work.”

Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer.

Q&A with Tim Robinson

Robinson's perspective on strategy, the new inpatient tower and his Midwest roots.

Was the new five-year strategic plan on the radar in 2019 when you took over as CEO?

Many of these themes are a continuation of what we did in the last strategic plan such as our efforts in behavioral health and in genomics. Partners for Kids has been here a long time and we’ve continued to build out those capabilities. Then you see us taking those programs to the next level. That’s the work we’ve done over the last year: Looking at how we’ve performed and where there are new opportunities and where there’s the opportunity to invest more aggressively in areas where we can impact outcomes for kids. We’re defining and determining what true high-quality outcomes look like, which is relatively new work in the pediatric space.

The new plan includes a new inpatient tower with about the same capacity as the current inpatient building. Does that mean you’ll be treating twice as many kids?

No. What you’re going to be seeing are two things: We will definitely expand capacity. But you’re also going to see this becoming more of a critical-care tower. For example, we’ll be expanding the footprint of our neonatal intensive care units, both expanding the space and resources for existing populations while also growing space for new capacity. We are just in the throes of planning out the building and planning the logistics of where each area needs to be located.

You grew up in Ohio and Indiana in a middle-class family. How did that lead you to Nationwide Children’s?

I’m a Midwest guy. I grew up in Cincinnati and then my father, who was a fireman, retired early and moved to Indiana and I became a farmer, Green Acres style. I have four older sisters and one sister was the head of the YWCA in Cincinnati.  Even though I started out in business and the retail industry, when I first came to the hospital I immediately fell in love with the mission and the people. I think that desire to serve our community and specifically our children—I can see that coming back to my father and my sister, who were very influential. It’s a big part of who I am.

Tim Robinson

CEO, Nationwide Children’s Hospital

Age: 63

In position since: July 2019

Previous: Chief financial officer, executive vice president, chief administrative officer, Nationwide Children’s; assistant treasurer, Nationwide Children’s; treasurer of shoe retailer Kobacker Co.

Education: Bachelor’s degrees in psychology and business administration from Indiana University Bloomington; certified cash manager, IU

Resides: Bexley

Family: Tim and wife Jane have three children, Lauren, Andrea and Jordan