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Member Spotlight: Dean Health Plan Breaks the Mold

Dean Health Plan

Dean Health Plan, a full-service health insurance organization based in Madison, Wisconsin, is a Platinum Award recipient with WELCOA.

Established in 1983, Dean Health Plan employs nearly 900 team members and insures close to 500,000 members across four states. It is a joint venture of Minnesota-based non-profit health plan Medica and SSM Health, an integrated health system headquartered in St. Louis.

They have a rich history of providing comprehensive wellness support to employees, members, and the local community.

“We really do care about our employees, and we know if we take care of them, they will take care of our clients and our community,” said Danielle Tavenner, Health Promotion Coordinator at Dean Health Plan. “But we don’t want to just talk about it. We want to show [employees]. We consider them family.”

Over time, Dean Health Plan’s wellness efforts have expanded from a small group of employees implementing basic wellness campaigns to a team of 12 dedicated team members who bring a variety of skills and experiences to the table. The wellness team at Dean Health Plan includes a licensed professional counselor, social workers, an exercise physiologist, a registered dietitian, and wellness experts. Together, these colleagues bring decades of varied experience to the organization.

“I get so excited about our team because we have so many different points of view and backgrounds represented,” Tavenner said. “This diversity leads to collaborative conversations where we can really innovate and advance new ideas and solve problems creatively. It’s definitely a strength of our program.”

While Dean Health Plan supports various populations with wellness programming, they customize to meet the needs of each group and each individual.

“We support our colleagues, our clients, and our communities with a variety of options across the eight dimensions of wellness through various modes,” Tavenner said. “We see that every individual has unique needs, a special story, and so we’re all about providing individualized support regardless of which group or population is on the other end.”

On a community level, Dean Health Plan has several teams that partner with local resources and organizations. This includes a mission team and a preservation of the earth team. Community partnerships include Stuff the Bus, a program organized to collect school supplies for families in need in collaboration with local schools, Share Your Holidays food drive, and internal fundraising activities in partnership with Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin and the Healthy Parks Healthy You initiative to help encourage people to spend more time in nature to support their physical, social, financial, environmental and emotional well-being.

“We try to engage people both at work and at home with their families,” Tavenner said.

Fighting to Unwind Preconceived Notions

“Our biggest challenge is that many people have preconceived notions of wellness,” Tavenner said. “They have this ideal situation in their head. This is what I need to be healthy. This is what I need to look like, to act like. This is what a healthy person is. This is what a wellness program is supposed to be. This stems from a long-term focus on physical and nutritional health over the years. Breaking that mold and helping them understand that overall well-being is multi-dimensional and considers our family, life history, environment and more; that is an important body of work.”

“The programming we offer starts with the individual. What is important to them, what barriers do they have, how ready are they to change, and how can we support them? For some, that might involve multiple triathlons a year. For others, it might be reading more or spending more time with family. We don’t judge and recognize this is a journey. We are there to help employees achieve their own health goals, not our goals.”

“We’re looking at emotional, environmental, social, financial, physical, spiritual, personal/professional, and nutritional health. We try to help people understand how all of these components are interrelated — how each impacts the other. When we can help individuals make that connection, it opens eyes and a doorway to better wellness practices.”

But how do you reset what wellness means for a workforce while developing an individualized approach to the pursuit of wellness? At Dean Health Plan, a core strategy is the use of Health Transformation Consultants. These individuals are part of the internal wellness team and serve as guides for employees to help them develop a personal wellness plan for the upcoming year. Each employee has the opportunity to participate in a session with a consultant to build their plan.

“In these conversations with the consultant, employees can talk about what is important to them,” Tavenner said. “Sometimes there’s a specific goal or change they want to make. Sometimes they just appreciate having someone to listen to them and what they are going through at that moment, especially if they aren’t comfortable talking about it elsewhere. The consultant also helps those who don’t have a primary care physician select one and review their overdue preventive care. This is documented in their medical record to provide continuity across the health care team. They also review health risks, like tobacco use, and underlying social determinants of health based on a questionnaire completed prior to the appointment. These conversations are personal and tailored to each individual.”

After the initial appointment, the participant and the consultant will connect as needed throughout the year to make sure things are going well and offer ongoing support and resources as needed.

“A simple example is that for an employee who is experiencing a personal loss, the consultant might recommend a book club on grief that is available or how to connect to grief and loss support resources,” Tavenner explained. “Later, the consultant might follow up to see if the employee followed through on the recommendation, and if so, if it was helpful to the healing process.”

In addition to making wellness personal for every individual, documentation from the meetings also serve as the perfect opportunity to anonymously aggregate feedback and gain insights to help the entire population.

“The high-level feedback from these conversations helps us make changes to the culture,” Tavenner said. “It’s been a powerful way for us to keep a good pulse on what our employees need to thrive.”

Yet another misperception of wellness Dean Health Plan team has identified is that wellness is all about expectations and restrictions.

“People think it’s going to be a list of things they need to do, and things they need to stop doing,” Tavenner said. “We try to help them see that wellness is fun. It’s hide and seek or chasing your kids. That’s physical activity. It’s coffee breaks with a friend. That’s good for your social and emotional health. That’s wellness. It’s not just hardline education and accountability. It can also be fun.”

The team fosters fun and engaging activities throughout the year to drive this point home, including a terrarium project. The organization provided employees with a kit to build their own terrarium and showcase it to colleagues or in their remote offices.

“We are always looking for opportunities to bring smiles and connection to people,” she said.

It’s Ok to Not Be Ok

“The silver lining of the pandemic is that now it is officially ok to not be ok,” Tavenner said. “As a result, we’ve had so many open and transparent conversations with colleagues. We’ve had so many opportunities to help people that never would have happened before.”

Before the pandemic, Dean Health Plan was fully equipped to support the mental health needs of its population. Now they are seeing those resources being leveraged more consistently.

“I am seeing people open up and be vulnerable, and I’m witnessing people feeling more comfortable allowing themselves to ask for help,” Tavenner said. “Before the pandemic, many of the emotional and mental health needs were already there. It’s just that people didn’t feel like they had permission to talk about it.”

Self-Care as a Priority

“Our employees have reported it is hard to find time for self-care,” Tavenner said. “We made it a priority to communicate how important it was to take self-care time. That includes prioritizing your own medical care. Our executive team has been very supportive of promoting social events, wellness activities, and self-care time.”

Just like wellness overall, she points out that people often have preconceived ideas of what self-care actually means.

“People often think self-care means a spa day, or that I commit to 15 minutes of meditation every day, and they get more stressed out trying to accomplish a practice of self-care,” Tavenner said. “They feel worse because they can’t do it. We’ve tried to help employees see that self-care can be as simple as taking five minutes to walk away from your desk or talking to a friend and making a social connection. It’s these smaller acts of self-care that slowly build. Over time, they add up.”

She suggests that leaders take a few moments at the beginning of meetings for check-ins with the team to give space for people to connect.

“Here’s an example of what I mean,” Tavenner said. “My director has two pigs, and they live in the house. One day, they got a hold of a dollar bill, and then things turned comical. She shared this story with the team to kick off a meeting. It was so impactful. It just made all the difference in the world because it was a light moment. It wasn’t all about work.”

Open Minds Lead to Opportunity

When sharing best practices with other wellness professionals, Tavenner always stresses the importance of staying “open.”

“Always keep an open mind,” she said. “It can be easy when people bring new ideas to you to dismiss them due to budget or not having tried the idea in the past. Don’t get caught up in why something might not work, promote additional dialogue to determine how it can work. The conversation usually leads to an even better idea.”

On a related note, she extended the concept of openness to include being transparent as well.

“I would also encourage wellness leaders to share challenges with your team, your leadership, your employees,” Tavenner continued. “When you open up and let people know you don’t have all the answers, and you invite them in to participate in the design, you are creating space for everyone to be part of the solution. That ignites and engages people and gives them ownership of the outcomes. In my experience, this fosters much more innovation and leads to some really great results.”

What Success Looks Like at Dean Health Plan

Important success metrics for Dean Health Plan include engagement and satisfaction with personal wellness plan appointments provided by the consultants as well as timely preventive care measures. The organization also administers a quarterly well-being index and analyzes feedback from that survey to offer new resources as needed. Finally, maintaining Platinum status with WELCOA is a success signal and a key metric as well.

“We’ve used a lot of WELCOA resources, but by far the checklist and award application help us stay on track and relevant while ensuring that we compare favorably to a national standard. We really want our program to be the best in class for our employees and the members we serve. We always want to improve, and WELCOA has helped us stay true to that value.”

Want to learn more about how Dean Health Plan is helping redefine wellness for its population and how you can do the same for your organization?

Contact Danielle at to continue the conversation.