Transformative Leadership: Steve Allen's Legacy at Nationwide Children's Hospital

Kathy Lynn Gray
Dr. Steve Allen is retiring June 30 after 13 years as CEO of Nationwide Children's Hospital.

When Dr. Steve Allen learned that a patient at Nationwide Children's Hospital wanted his picture taken with the CEO, he didn't hesitate for a second. Allen dropped what he was doing and raced up to the boy's room to fulfill the wish, musing about why a sick child would ask for such a thing.

Since then, the photograph of the pair has held an honored spot in Allen's office, reminding him every day why he works so hard to make the pediatric hospital one of the best in the country. It's the same reason he keeps nearly all the letters people send him about their children. “It reminds me of what we're here for,” says Allen, who retires June 30 after 13 years as CEO of Nationwide Children's.

Allen, 66, has been at the helm since July 2006, presiding over a time of unprecedented growth in both the clinical and research sides of the hospital. The changes have revolutionized patient care as well as the campus and the surrounding neighborhood. “His impact has been astonishing,” says Mark Wietecha, president and CEO of the national Children's Hospital Association, where Allen served as a board member and board chair. “Steve is a totally transformational leader.”

Allen, who's board-certified in anesthesiology and critical care medicine, came to Columbus from an executive post at Texas Medical Center in Houston. His first major project: overseeing a seven-year, $480 million expansion completed in 2012 that included an underground parking garage, a 6-acre park, an additional research building and a new 12-story main hospital with private rooms built with patients and their families front and center. That patient focus was so valued that mockups were created so people could try them out and give feedback before the new facility was completed, Allen says. “We've learned the environment has an impact on the healing, that the facilities can convey a sense of courage, hope and strength,” he says. “So when we designed the hospital, those things were very important to us.”

A second, $730 million expansion announced in 2016 and concluding in 2022 includes an outpatient care center at Grant and Livingston avenues, a six-story office building, another research building, an energy plant, a data center and something close to Allen's heart: the Big Lots Behavioral Health Pavilion set to open next year. Thanks to a $50 million gift from the Columbus retailer and its foundation, the facility will be the largest of its kind in the U.S., with 48 inpatient beds, a Youth Crisis Stabilization Unit and a Psychiatric Crisis Center. The hospital's national “On Our Sleeves” campaign, which aims to end the stigma surrounding childhood mental health, is another element of its commitment in this arena.

“Most institutions shy away from behavioral health, but that has to be an area we're as deeply involved in as the other areas we invest in,” says Allen. “We can't separate children's behavioral health problems from their physical ones. To be true to our mission, we've got to be all-in.”

“The Perfect Leader”

The exceptional growth has literally transformed Nationwide Children's from a regional hospital to an international facility that offers groundbreaking procedures and treatments, drawing patients from more than 50 countries and all 50 states. It was one of just 10 institutions named to theU.S. News & World Report2018-19 Best Children's Hospitals Honor Roll. In 2018, Nationwide Children's had 527 licensed beds, more than 1.56 million patient visits, annual operating revenue of $2.5 billion and operating expenses of $2.26 billion.

Yet, Wietecha says, you won't hear Allen tooting his own horn. “He's the most accomplished person I know who won't tell you about anything he did,” Wietecha says. “He's a modest guy, and that's kind of rare these days.”

That ability to hold his ego in check has not only helped Allen navigate in a world of high-powered individuals, but also enables him to bring out the best in the people around him, says his wife, Dr. Jamie Keller Allen. “He has the ability to listen to others and to lead by example,” she says. “He does that in our family, too—he's very patient and takes in all the voices and listens to them.”

Allen is a private individual who prefers to discuss the hospital rather than himself. Asked if the job has made him a better parent to his five children, he shifts into CEO mode, noting that no matter what crisis he's facing at work, talking to a patient or parent always makes him realize how a child's health affects the entire family. This leads him to a thought he often repeats: “For me, or whoever does my job, you have to be mindful of what impacts children's ability to reach their full potential.”

That's one reason that, from the beginning, Allen pushed to expand the hospital's research arm. “No other children's hospital has grown its research more dramatically,” says Dr. John Barnard, president of the newly named Abigail Wexner Research Institute at Nationwide Children's. The institute's funding has mushroomed from $41.7 million when Allen took over to $105.9 million in 2018, and its ranking for research funding from the National Institutes of Health has gone from the mid-teens to fifth in the nation, Barnard says.

“He's been the perfect leader for us at this time, a visionary leader,” Barnard says. “He's given his leadership team a tremendous amount of autonomy, latitude and freedom to execute our strategic plan.”

“It's Been Life-Changing”

Ronda Parsons has seen firsthand the benefits of the hospital's research advancements. Her 22-year-old daughter, Marissa, has Aicardi and Lennox-Gastaut syndromes and has been treated at Nationwide Children's since she was 3 months old.

The conditions—one a rare neurological disorder and the other a severe form of epilepsy—resulted in daily seizures. Nothing stopped them until, at the age of 18, Marissa became part of a clinical trial of the use of cannabidiol, a component of marijuana better known as CBD. Her neurologist at Children's, Dr. Anup Patel, pushed to bring the study to Columbus and to enroll Marissa. “It's been life-changing for us,” Parsons says. “She went from having five to eight seizures a day to having zero to eight a week.” Life-threatening seizures, the kind that required emergency trips to the hospital, have fallen to practically zero.

Marissa continues to take the drug, now commercialized and known as Epidiolex, and her improved health has allowed the Parsons family to do something they'd only dreamed of: take a vacation together. “I can't stress enough how much this has changed our lives,” Parsons says.

Various forms of gene therapy are among other promising research developments at Children's. One has allowed several young children with Duchenne muscular dystrophy to climb stairs and run, and another has allowed babies with type 1spinalmuscularatrophy to breathe on their own and sit up.

In Allen's eyes, the importance of research at a pediatric hospital can't be overstated, particularly when it comes to patient care. “I always say when I talk to audiences that you can take your child to where they read the latest textbooks, or you can take them to a place where they write the textbooks. Research gives you the credibility to write the textbooks.”

“An Incredible Trajectory”

Beyond improving the lives of patients, Allen also has pushed efforts to improve the community around Nationwide Children's, centered just east of Downtown at Parsons and East Livingston avenues. For several decades, it had been a high-crime, high-poverty area with a deteriorating housing stock. “It didn't seem right that the neighborhood around the hospital wasn't thriving,” Allen says.

In 2008, Children's started Healthy Neighborhoods Healthy Families, an initiative to buy, renovate and resell rundown houses; to make medical care more available to residents; and to help provide educational mentoring for kids. According to the hospital, with the help of community partners, the effort has so far built or rehabbed 300 houses, boosted the area graduation rate from 64 percent to 79 percent and generated $22.6 million in investment.

Michael Doody, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1996, says that “engine of change” has reduced crime, created a greater sense of community and improved housing. “Children's Hospital always has had a presence here, but it's been huge in the last 10 years,” he says. On a 10-point scale with 10 being the highest possible participation, the hospital has gone from “a 3 to an 8 or 9 now,” Doody says.

As of July 1, Allen will be watching from the sidelines as the neighborhood and all the other innovations he's helped engineer continue to evolve. Although he announced his retirement a year ago, Allen still isn't sure what he'll do when that day rolls around. “He's going to take a few months to relax and figure it out,” says his wife, an anesthesiologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “He has a lot of interests and hobbies.”

One thing they won't do is move, she says. At least not in the near future. They love Columbus.

Allen is sure about one thing: Nationwide Children's will continue to lead the country in pediatric health care. He has high praise for his successor, Tim Robinson of Grandview Heights. Robinson, who was promoted from executive vice president and chief financial and administrative officer, has a bachelor's degree in psychology and business administration and has been with the hospital since 1995.

“Children's is on an incredible trajectory,” Allen says. “It'll just continue to solidify its position as one of the places where great things and innovations are happening every day.”


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A Quick History of Nationwide Children's Hospital

1892 – Columbus Children's Hospital opens with nine beds.

1924 – A new hospital opens with 75 beds, eventually expanding to 300.

1961 – First research building opens

2006 – Children's receives a $50 million gift from the Nationwide Foundation. The facility is renamed Nationwide Children's Hospital in September 2007.

2006 – Dr. Steve Allen becomes CEO.

2008 – Work begins on an $840 million expansion that will include a new 12-story main hospital, an underground parking garage, a park and a research building.

2008 – The Office of Technology Commercialization is established.

2008 – The Healthy Neighborhoods Healthy Families initiative is launched to revitalize the area around the hospital.

2012 – Earns its first spot on theU.S. News & World ReportBest Children's Hospitals Honor Roll, giving it top 10 status

2016 – The hospital announces a $730 million expansion to add 11 buildings, including the Big Lots Behavioral Health Pavilion, an outpatient care center, a research facility and office space.

2019 – Allen retires June 30, turning over the reins to Tim Robinson.

Source: Nationwide Children's Hospital