Nationwide Children’s Hospital leads its industry from the forefront


Several Boston institutions recently put on a contest where five patients’ diagnosis couldn’t be found through conventional means. Institutions from around the world were given genetic code and clinical information, and then were judged based on who could come up with the best rationale and diagnosis.

Nationwide Children’s Hospital won — thanks to its work in the burgeoning field of genomics — and the judges said the hospital’s response was head and shoulders above the rest.

Research and staying at the industry forefront is the lifeblood of elite organizations like Nationwide Children’s.

“The way I often describe it to lay audiences is that you have two choices: you can either take your child to a place where the practitioners all read the latest textbooks and do exactly what the textbooks say, or you can take your child to the place that writes the textbooks,” says Dr. Steve Allen, CEO at Nationwide Children’s. “Generating new knowledge through research gives you the credibility to write the textbooks, and that’s who we need to be.”

The best business advice Allen ever received was that your aim should be to disrupt the competitive landscape by changing how people view your industry.

In children’s health care, you’re not competing for patients, but for talent and mindshare. You need to be writing the textbooks.

“If all you’re going to do is to be as good as the No. 1 or No. 2 in your industry, you’ve already lost the game,” he says. “Your aim should be to change the competitive landscape.”

At Nationwide Children’s, which now employs more than 11,000 people, there’s no status quo.

Allen says the hospital is always investing in the next generation of knowledge through research, upgrading its services, developing new products and training the next generation of providers, in order to keep teaching the rest of the country what it means to be a children’s health care organization.

Lead the way

So, what does it take to stay on the forefront? Hard work. A culture of accountability. Luck. All of the above?

Nationwide Children’s continually looks at where the science and industry are going, in order to make strategic bets on where it thinks it can make a difference, Allen says.

For example, over time it acquired innovative programs that have helped form the building blocks of a world-class genomics programs. Now, he says the hospital believes it’s time to make a larger investment and develop a much more robust research program.

“The human genome was first sequenced a dozen and a half years ago at the cost of about $3 billion, and now we can do that exact same thing with current technology for about $1,000,” Allen says. “So the rate at which technology has accelerated — to be able to bring this to something that’s more likely to impact decisions at the bed side and drive therapy — it’s just much more tangible now.”

Allen was a doctor and hospital administrator in Houston for 24 years before he came to Columbus. While he thought he would finish his career there, during the search process he became enamored with Nationwide Children’s mission and the support it enjoyed from the community.

A decade later, he spends a fair bit of time recruiting other people to come to Columbus and every time tells them: “I know what it’s like to be in a good place and not have a need to move, but I thought that this was a good job when I took it and I grossly underestimated the potential and opportunity that existed here.”

While he still views everything from the perspective of a physician, since that’s what he did for most of his adult life, Allen’s role as a manager requires something else.

The main job of management is to try to figure out what direction or directions the organization needs to go. He says you’re going to be right some of the time, and you’re going to be wrong some of the time.

You can use metrics to help with the decision-making and see if you’re making progress in the areas you’ve chosen, but it’s important to not let any mistakes get to you.

Management also needs to articulate a compelling vision for the future of the organization, Allen says.

“The way that you lead isn’t by telling people what to do, it’s by inspiring them with a compelling vision,” he says. “I think that’s just been a really important lesson for me, one that I try to pass on to other physicians who think about going into management.”

Buying in

In order to be a disruptor and lead the industry, it’s also important to make strategic planning fun and exciting, while involving a lot of stakeholders.

“We have a process by which we involve many different stakeholders within the hospital at all different levels to get their input and make sure that everybody has had a chance to say and give their perspective on it,” he says. “So that, by the time that we come up with a final plan, there’s general buy in.”

This might slow the initial planning down a little, but it’s worth it.

“We usually set aside several months to do this, and I think it pays off to have that type of broad input from an organization like ours,” Allen says. “It requires some organizational skill on the part of the planning department, but I think it certainly more than pays itself off in how things get executed over time.”

One advantage for getting that buy-in is the hospital’s mission. People came to work for the hospital in order to help children, so Allen makes sure he ties the direction that management thinks it need to go with that founding mission.

And while sometimes people will underestimate how far Nationwide Children’s can go once it decides to take something on, Allen has a response to that.

“I just point to the recent past,” he says. “I say, OK, let’s look at what we’ve done in the south side, our community, around the hospital. Look what we’ve done with research. Look what we’ve done with tech commercialization. This is a place that makes stuff happen.”


The Allen File:

Name: Dr. Steve Allen
Title: CEO
Company: Nationwide Children’s Hospital

Born: Abilene, Texas
Education: M.D., University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston; MBA, University of Houston-Clear Lake

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I was an orderly in an intensive care unit.

From my first memories, I knew I was going to be a physician. I never considered doing anything else — that was part of the reason why I left college after three years and went straight to medical school; I knew what I was going to go do. As a child I had read a lot about medicine and biomedical research. When I became an orderly I had an idea about what disease was about and how people thought about disease, but I didn’t appreciate how patients perceived their disease.

Working as an orderly and taking care of these critically ill patients, it gave me a much greater insight into how people perceive their illness, which I found invaluable and something that I’ve continued to be fascinated with throughout the years that I’ve been in medicine.

What led you to go from being a doctor to getting into management? It was never part of a plan. I was a very typical academic physician. I taught. I took care of patients. I did research.

I got asked to start doing some administrative work part time, and then I started doing more and more of it because I liked it. I found it very stimulating and something where I found I could make a contribution.