Steve Allen reflects on Nationwide Children's transformation as new leader takes helm
When he accepted the job as Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s CEO in 2006, Dr. Steve Allen saw enormous potential in the dreams and plans of the organization’s board. But, he admits now, he grossly underestimated what could be accomplished at the local pediatric facility once the community decided to shoot for the stars. “I was quite enamored with the ambition and aspirations that the board had set out, and the unique opportunities I saw in Columbus,” says Allen, preparing to retire June 30 after 13 years as CEO. “But for me to say that I expected us to do this well, that just wouldn’t be true. I mean, what we’ve done is really remarkable.”
One needs simply to drive around the hospital’s campus on Livingston Avenue at Parsons Avenue to see the physical growth—two new research buildings, a new main hospital, a park, an outpatient care center, an office building and a still-under-construction Behavioral Health Pavilion, just to name a few of the additions.
On the people side, the hospital staff has more than doubled to over 13,219, and the number of patient visits has gone from 711,000 a year to more than 1.4 million since Allen came to Columbus. In 2012, the hospital was named one of America’s 10 best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report, a distinction it still holds today.
“The campus is unrecognizable,” says Mark Wietecha, who worked at the hospital 25 years ago and is now president and CEO of the National Children’s Hospital Association. Allen’s impact has been “astonishing,” Wietecha says, and attributes it to his dedication to a broad duty of care for kids everywhere. Allen has been an association board member and association chairman.
“There are not many finer leaders in the United States,” Wietecha says.
Allen, 67, grew up in Abilene, Texas, and went to college and medical school in the Lone Star State. Before he came to Nationwide Children’s, he worked for 18 years at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, the pediatric teaching hospital for the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, serving as vice president and CEO there his final two years. When Nationwide Children’s leaders were ready to remake the hospital from a local and regional facility to a national and international institution, they found a quiet, visionary leader in Allen.
“It’s literally been a transformation to a world-class institution,” says Alex Fischer, chairman of the hospital board and CEO of the Columbus Partnership. “Steve, along with Abigail Wexner, has been one of the driving forces.” Wexner, who’s been on the hospital board 26 years, was chairman when Allen was hired and helped recruit him.
“It was the most important thing I could do on the board,” she says. “He’s transformed everything.”
Before Allen came, the hospital board had set in motion a $480 million expansion that included a new 12-story main hospital, a 6-acre park, an underground parking garage and an additional research building. That was completed in 2012. A second, $730 million expansion that began in 2016 includes the hospital’s fourth research building, a data center, an outpatient care center, a six-story office building and 48-bed behavioral health facility.
“It’s all about making sure that we’re taking the best care possible of children in Columbus,” Allen says. “Abigail’s driving passion when I came here was that no child would have to leave Central Ohio in order to get the care they needed. For us to do that, we needed to have programs that are so good that no child needs to leave.”
And programs so good that doctors and researchers from around the world wanted to be part of them. “Steve has been at the core of that, empowering his team to bring important talent here,” Wexner says.
That’s been particularly evident in recent years on the research side of the hospital. Dr. John Barnard, president of the Abigail Wexner Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s, says research was gaining momentum at the hospital when Allen arrived. “He helped us reach beyond our already bold plan to achieve even greater accomplishments,” Barnard says. Funding for research has more than doubled, from $41.7 million in 2006 to $105.9 million in 2018, and under Allen’s leadership, hospital researchers have developed some of the most advanced molecular therapies available for rare and previously life-ending conditions, Barnard says.
Allen explains the importance of research to a children’s hospital this way: “If your child has a complex medical problem you have two choices: You can either take the child to a place where they read all the latest textbooks and they do everything that the latest textbooks say you should do, or you can take your child to the place that writes the textbooks and is generating new knowledge through research, giving them the credibility to write the textbooks.”
Nationwide Children’s, says Allen, is writing the textbooks, and by having groundbreaking research done in Columbus, giving Central Ohio children the chance to participate in treatments before anyone else in the country.
One exciting advance has been in gene therapy research for children with muscular dystrophy, including breakthrough results in a clinical trial for spinal muscular atrophy type 1, a progressive disease that typically results in death by age 2. Other research at Children’s is progressing to find genetic causes of congenital heart disease, how supplements can reduce preterm births and ways to use tissue-engineered vascular grafts in patients with congenital heart disease.
The research, funding and leadership have drawn world-renowned researchers to the hospital, such as pre-eminent genomic researchers Richard Wilson and Elaine Mardis. They spent nearly a decade at the McDonnell Genome Institute at Washington University, where DNA sequencing technology resulted in efforts to examine the genomics of cancer, and now lead Nationwide Children’s Institute for Genomic Medicine. Allen called their hiring in 2016 “one of the most significant scientific recruitments in this organization’s history.”
There’s much more to Allen’s leadership initiatives than research, says Fischer, who’s been on the Nationwide Children’s board for 11 years. Allen was a driving force behind the hospital’s new planned mental health facility, which is scheduled to open next year. “There’s nothing I’m more proud of,” Fischer says. He hopes the new facility and the hospital’s “On Our Sleeves” campaign to reduce the stigma of mental illness will be noticed nationally and replicated. Allen says the Behavioral Health Pavilion supports the hospital’s founding mission to provide for local children.
“We can’t say, ‘Well, we’re just going to provide for their physical health,’ ” he says. “We need to provide for the whole child and we, by far, are the best organization to try to address behavioral health problems.”
Another initiative Allen’s been passionate about is improving the impoverished neighborhood around the hospital, east of Downtown at Parsons and East Livingston avenues, which had deteriorated for decades. “We have unique resources, capability and community standing in order to take the lead in things that would typically be felt to be outside the purview of traditional medicine,” he says. “In our case, it was hard for me to conceive how the hospital could thrive while the neighborhood around it wasn’t. So it was important to me to have a multipronged program that made the neighborhood a more enriching place for our neighbors to live in.”
First, hospital staff talked with area neighborhood association members to find out what the community needed. Then the hospital started the Healthy Neighborhoods Healthy Families program in 2008. Through the program, Nationwide Children’s has bought, renovated and resold vacant houses; built rent-controlled apartments; and offered job training and provided medical care for residents in the area, known as Southern Orchards. Resident Michael Doody has seen an increase in safety, a sense of community and neighborhood involvement since 2008, and he’s pleased that derelict homes have been renovated rather than torn down. “If you get one house on the block corrected, then a second and a third will improve,” he says. “Before, these were houses where drug addicts and prostitutes might have gone.”
Many government and nonprofit groups also pitched in, investing more than $22 million in the neighborhood. Allen draws particular attention to the contributions of Community Development for All People, a South Side nonprofit headed by the Rev. John Edgar. “We wouldn’t have gotten as far as we have if it hadn’t been for his remarkable, committed work,” Allen says. “He’s incredibly effective as a community activist.”
Allen says he has no particular plans for retirement. His wife, Dr. Jamie Keller Allen, will continue to work at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center as an anesthesiologist. The couple, who have five children, plans to stay in Columbus.
Allen expects all the work he’s done to continue when his successor, Tim Robinson, takes over. Robinson, executive vice president and chief financial and administrative officer, has worked at the hospital for more than two decades. “I believe, well, I know he’ll take Nationwide Children’s to the next level,” says Allen.
What are you most proud of from your time at Children’s?
There are so many things one can point to about the hospital’s growth: the construction, the cures and treatments. But what the people of Central Ohio should be most proud of is that, in the face of all the other great world-shaking things that the hospital has accomplished, it still remains true to the founding mission of 127 years ago, that we will always make decisions that are in the best interest of the child and family.
Why was it important to improve the neighborhood around the hospital and how did you achieve that?
It was hard for me to conceive how the hospital could thrive while the neighborhood around it wasn’t. So we came up with a five-point plan. The first aspect we needed to tackle was we had too many vacant homes. We began to renovate or completely rebuild houses in the neighborhood. We’ve impacted over 330 homes. We also opened Gateway Homes, where apartments are rent-controlled, and we perform job training.
Why are you adding a behavioral health facility and running a campaign to address the stigma surrounding mental health in children?
We realized that there was inadequate capacity to deal with the behavioral health problems children have in Central Ohio. And we were the best organization to try to address those problems. It comes back to our founding mission: providing for the children in Franklin County. We can’t say we’re just going to provide for their physical health. We need to provide for the whole child.
Why are you retiring now, when all your hard work is coming to fruition, and what’s in the future for you?
I thought for some time that, with where the hospital was in its trajectory, that was a good time for me to step away and let the next leader take over. I knew this was about the time frame in which I would want to step away. I’m going to take a couple of months and think through what I might want to put my energies into next.
Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer.
In position since: July 2006
Previous: Vice president and CEO at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston
Education: Undergraduate degree, Rice University; MD from University of Texas Medical Branch; MBA from University of Houston-Clear Lake
Community involvement (past and present): Children’s Hospital Association, Central Ohio Hospital Council, TechColumbus, Ohio Children’s Hospital Association, Ohio Business Roundtable, Ohio Hospital Association, OSU Health Plans, Central Ohio YMCA, faculty member at the Ohio State University College of Medicine
Personal: Resides in Columbus with wife, Dr. Jamie Keller Allen. They have five children.