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The Exec: Catherine Corbin Discusses Innovation at St. Jude

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   February 28, 2023

St. Jude Children's Research Hospital's new (and first) chief business innovation officer talks about new ideas and strategies at the renowned pediatric health system.

Earlier this year St. Jude Children's Research Hospital appointed Catherine Corbin the health system's first chief business innovation officer.

An expert in human-centered design, Corbin is charged with working with CEO James Downing, MD, and other senior leaders to guide the health system's $12.9 billion, six-year strategic plan, the largest and most ambitious investment in St Jude's 60-year history. This includes roughly $3 billion in planned construction projects.

Prior to joining St. Jude, she spent four years at the San Francisco-based global design and innovation firm IDEO, where she helped St. Jude develop programs like Family Commons and the St. Jude Global Alliance. She was also a principal at the architectural and engineering firm CannonDesign and was administrative director of orthopedic surgery and neurosurgery at a Chicago health system.

Corbin recently sat down—virtually—with HealthLeaders to discuss her new role.

Q: How do you define healthcare innovation?

Corbin: Since the beginning of time people have had problems to solve, and innovation is about solving those problems better than you have before. That applies to healthcare or any other industry.  I view innovation as an outcome rather than a thing you do; innovation is the result of creative problem-solving that is guided by particular activities, behaviors, and mindsets. In my experience, you are more likely to see innovation occur when you:

  • have curiosity and empathy (mindsets);
  • engage directly with the problem to understand it rather than make assumptions and include a diverse set of people and viewpoints (behavior); and
  • commit to experimenting and testing possible solutions, incrementally, so that you learn, adjust, and refine (activities). 

A lot of the mystery or magic of innovation lies in your ability to be disciplined in tackling a problem differently and in your willingness to keep going when things inevitably get uncomfortable. Change is uncomfortable, yet you can’t have innovation without change.

Q: What are the biggest challenges or barriers to healthcare innovation?

Corbin: Healthcare is a highly regulated industry where risk-taking isn’t as rewarded or as encouraged as it is in the other industries we often look to as examples of being innovative, such as tech or retail. To an extent, it’s a good thing that there is risk aversion and regulation in healthcare--people’s lives and wellbeing are often at the center of many decisions, but not all. One challenge to innovating in healthcare, then, is to be able to see regulation and risk mitigation on a spectrum and not a binary 'yes/no' choice. That opens up space to try new things, to learn and adapt, and to ultimately implement a new or modified solution to the problem at hand. That’s innovation and it applies to all industries, including healthcare.

Q: Is innovation approached or handled differently at a children's health system? How is it different?

Corbin: The fundamental approach to creative problem-solving still applies in pediatric healthcare. There are plenty of areas inside a pediatric hospital or pediatric-focused research institution like St. Jude that, from a business standpoint, function very similarly to adult institutions, or even organizations outside of the healthcare industry. 

Catherine Corbin, chief business innovation officer at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Photo courtesy St. Jude.

Now for the nuance. The people we’re most often solving or designing for in a pediatric-focused institution like St. Jude are kids. Kids come into the healthcare system with one or more parents, or a designated caregiver, and sometimes siblings. There is a co-dependency within the family unit when the child is the patient and the pain, fear, or hope that a child feels as a patient is going to have immediate ripple effects on the family unit. That family unit, and how all the researchers, clinicians, hospital staff, and so on interact with the family unit, must be considered accordingly. To put it simply, we must take into account the needs of many--the family--when we are trying to solve for one--the child.

Q: What new technologies or strategies would you like to introduce to St. Jude?

Corbin: I’d look to introduce technologies that are relevant to the problem at hand rather than prospectively attempt to bring in technology that’s in need of an application, however exciting or promising it may seem. Arguably, I see my role and team as a strategy that’s already been introduced. St. Jude is committing resources and energy to enabling innovation as we implement our strategic plan and that is a strategic choice that I’m proud to be a part of carrying out.

Q: Are there any current practices or trends that you would like to see discontinued?

Corbin: I would discontinue the use of the phrase 'healing environments' to describe hospitals and healthcare facilities. I remember hearing this phrase when I started my career in healthcare design in the early aughts and it bothered me, but I couldn’t articulate why. It is meant to differentiate an approach to designing modern, patient-centered facilities from many of the utilitarian hospitals of the 1940s and '50s hospital building boom. Yes, some healing does take place inside hospitals, but so much healing--physically, mentally, spiritually--happens outside and independent of the healthcare facility. I’d reframe it as hospitals are 'helping' environments; they’re there in moments of acute need and can absolutely initiate the healing process. Yet our patients and families often have a long road ahead of them once they walk out our doors and I believe we’d do well to recognize that more overtly.

Q: How has your background prepared you for this position?

Corbin: I’ve held a variety of roles across an array of companies, all related to innovation, design, and healthcare in some balance. You could say I’ve sat in a lot of different seats of the healthcare industry table: hospital administrator, patient experience designer, healthcare architect, non-profit board member, managing director responsible for a lot of people’s professional livelihoods. I’m also a parent to two young kids. On any given day, I see life at St. Jude through one or more of these lenses and would like to believe I’ll be valuable to the organization because of that.

Q: What has surprised you about healthcare innovation so far?

Corbin: That the essential and ubiquitous patient care space--the exam room--is still a 10x12-foot box with some chairs, a desk, and freezing cold air blowing on you while you wait nervously in a paper gown on a table. Innovation here is an enigma.

Q: How do you see this role and this department evolving? What's on the horizon?

Corbin: What’s on the immediate horizon is beginning recruitment of my team so that, together, we can build out the department and identify prioritized projects to partner on with other departments and teams at St. Jude. We will start and operate initially as a small team so we can be nimble and adapt our way of working as needed in order to be effective within the larger ecosystem of St. Jude. Longer term, I’d like to see this role and department evolve to a place where design and innovation methods are used in a strategic fashion throughout the organization and aren’t exclusively the domain of me or my team.

“A lot of the mystery or magic of innovation lies in your ability to be disciplined in tackling a problem differently and in your willingness to keep going when things inevitably get uncomfortable. Change is uncomfortable, yet you can’t have innovation without change.”

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, Telehealth, Supply Chain and Pharma for HealthLeaders.


St. Jude Children's Research Hospital has named Catherine Corbin its first chief business innovation officer.

An expert in human-centered design with a background in global design and innovation, Corbin will help guide the renowned health system's $12.9 billion, six-year strategic plan, the largest and most ambitious in St. Jude's 60 years.

Corbin wants to lead a team of creative minds that sees innovation beyond the exam room and helping not only patients but their families as well.

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