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November 17, 2014

Building a Culture of Health

In the ongoing quest to manage healthcare costs, area employers are focused on developing healthier workforces. It’s a movement ThedaCare fully supports.

In the ongoing quest to manage healthcare costs, area employers are focused on developing healthier workforces. It’s a movement ThedaCare fully supports.

I could tell many stories about companies who are taking steps to improve employee health. I believe all of them would attest to the benefits of their effort. One locally headquartered company, however, is a particularly good example of what it takes to build a culture of health.  In its story, I hope you’ll find something to spark an idea for helping your team stay healthy, and help you better manage your bottom line.

Meet Appvion.

Founded in 1907, Appvion is a leader in improving the health of its 1,600 employees and their families across three states. Health care is a big chunk of Appvion’s “people cost,” a chunk that has steadily increased over time, as it has for most employers. And like most employers, Appvion began with tweaks – changes in health plan design and in the employer-employee contribution mix. But, as with most companies, that approach took Appvion only so far.

We know from our own experience at ThedaCare – because we employ more than 6,100 people, and from the many businesses we partner with through ThedaCare At Work – that long-term, sustainable benefits come from improved employee health. And that requires more than tweaks. It requires shifting a culture that’s focused on treatment of disease to a culture that’s focused on health and wellness.

CEO Mark Richards led this shift at Appvion. It was a leap of faith in the beginning, but he saw the value and has steadily advanced the effort. Mark is a former ThedaCare board member and friend, and in the spirit of full disclosure, Appvion is a customer of ThedaCare At Work. All to say I know something of his commitment to the health of Appvion’s employees. It’s impressive.

One of Appvion’s key strategies has been to partner with experts to get at the root causes of poor health. In the 1950s, the company joined with the Appleton YMCA to offer subsidized memberships for employees. Over the years, that partnership has grown to include an onsite fitness center staffed by the Y.

Ten years ago, Appvion partnered with ThedaCare At Work. TCAW provides health coaches who are experts in understanding the results of a Health Risk Assessment (HRA), and who know how to support changes in lifestyle and behavior that lead to better health. Today, ThedaCare’s health coaches work closely with the Y’s team at Appvion to support improvements in diet and movement.

Last year, Appvion expanded its health and wellness options to include Lifestyle Medicine, which addresses drivers of chronic health conditions, as well as an onsite clinic at its Appleton campus, which takes a holistic approach to health.

Staffed by ThedaCare providers, the clinic serves about 900 employees and qualified dependents, as well as retirees – a total of about 2,300 people. It operates as an extension of a primary care clinic, is connected to ThedaCare’s electronic medical record, and is convenient, well-used and well-regarded. After the first year, employees reported 100 percent satisfaction, and utilization exceeded the company’s target by ten percent.

Importantly, Appvion is also seeing other results:

  • Employees who have completed two or more HRAs have either improved or maintained their baseline biometric score, and HRA participation in Appleton has increased to 76 percent.
  • Average cholesterol, body mass index and a blood test to measure diabetes control are steadily trending downward. These results mean significantly lower risk for heart attack, stroke and other complications.

  • In year one, the clinic broke even; in year two, the clinic is showing a positive ROI.

  • Appvion’s claims costs trend below the national benchmark.

What’s next? Appvion is adding physical therapy to its clinic offerings, and building into its culture daily stretching. The goal is to prevent injuries on the manufacturing floor, and reduce aches and pains from sitting too long. In a maintenance department pilot that engaged 90 employees, only one strain was reported in a ten month period, compared to 21 strains and sprains in the prior period. I understand the stretching program is moving into the offices next, and then will go enterprise-wide.

Building a culture of health isn’t easy, but as Appvion demonstrates, you can begin with small steps. What could your company do to help your employees take better care of themselves? What benefits might your business experience as a result? They’re questions worth exploring. 

Dr. Dean Gruner is president and CEO of Appleton-based ThedaCare. To send your thoughts to Gruner, email