By JULIE MINDA
Prior to 2013, St. Joseph Health's Esther Kim hadn't stepped foot in a doctor's office in a very long time. The project manager for the system's strategic services group said, "I was a 'young invincible' who didn't think I needed to go to the doctor. Though I have great insurance, I never used it. It was too much of a hassle to make appointments and go to them."
Esther Kim, left, gets a checkup in the Wellness Corner at St. Joseph Health system in Irvine, Calif., where she works as a project manager. Monica Doherty, a clinical nurse practitioner, does the exam.
That all changed two years ago when St. Joseph Health opened a "Wellness Corner" at its system headquarters in Irvine, Calif., the building where Kim works. The mini wellness center offers lifestyle coaching, weight management programs, primary care, physicals, group exercise classes and other preventive services — and, it's a three-minute walk from Kim's desk.
The convenience convinced Kim to schedule a checkup in 2013; and screenings that the clinicians conducted revealed a medical issue that could have worsened into a serious health condition. The center has since helped Kim bring the health concern under control by providing blood and lab tests, quickly relaying the results and helping Kim understand the results and make decisions.
And, "on a more fundamental level, the emotional support from the Wellness Corner staff was priceless," said Kim. "They were my trusted medical advisors, friends and family all rolled into one. Reflecting back to that time, I don't know what I would have done without the Wellness Corner."
Now she takes yoga at the facility. The Wellness Corner "has helped me to prioritize my health because my employer prioritized my health," said Kim.
Convenience is king
Since 2013, St. Joseph Health has opened an additional four Wellness Corners in and around Irvine.
Annette Walker, executive vice president of strategic services for St. Joseph Health, said the creation of the Wellness Corners is part of the system's effort to provide a balance between acute care and well care. Wellness Corners put "front doors" — or outpatient facilities — where people live and work.
The idea for the centers came about as St. Joseph Health leaders considered that "the way consumers define health is very different from how we (health care organizations) define health," said Walker, explaining that many community members define their health in terms of their physical fitness, eating habits and healthy lifestyle. "We saw that we had to be close to them to provide this kind of care, and we had to understand how the patterns of their life work," said Walker. "It was an 'aha moment' but also a 'duh moment' for us."
Fitting into the patterns of people's lives meant understanding that people are very busy. It is difficult for them to take two hours out of their work day or home life to travel to a medical office across town. Walker said, "We have a better chance of reaching them … if we fit in the course of their ordinary day."
Office park outposts
And, so, St. Joseph Health is locating the facilities in what Walker terms high-density corporate environments as well as high-density residential areas. More than 21,000 businesses are licensed to operate within Irvine's 66 square miles today; and more than 250,000 people reside in the city. The population is expected to climb to 318,000 by 2035.
The Wellness Corner at Park Place in Irvine.
Walker noted that the Wellness Corners are ideal for clusters of companies with 50 or fewer employees — and that's why
St. Joseph Health is planting the facilities in office parks with numerous small business tenants. St. Joseph Health also has opened two private Wellness Corners — they serve only the employees of individual companies with which St. Joseph Health has contracted. The center for the Western Digital technology hardware company in Irvine opened in July, and the center for the Masimo Partners medical technology company in Irvine opened last month.
The goal is for all the centers to be financially viable, though not all have achieved that goal at this time.
Each center has a slightly different setup and mix of offerings based on St. Joseph Health's informal research on consumer needs and desires in the area, and based on St. Joseph Health's discussions with employers about their employees' needs. The centers range in size from about 550 square feet to about 5,000 square feet. The centers typically have exam rooms and health coaching rooms but may also have physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic and exercise rooms, based on the mix of offerings at each location. The staffing varies as well, but it is common to have a nurse practitioner and medical assistant on-site, with remote oversight by a medical director. Other staff may include nutritionists, physical therapists, and chiropractors. Most staff are employed by, or contracted through, St. Joseph Health's medical group, which is called St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group.
The Wellness Corners located in work settings are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays; and the one located in a residential area is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. The centers accept walk-ins but encourage appointments.
Large menu of services
Commonly offered medical services at the corners that are generally covered by insurance include annual exams, lab draws, vaccinations and menopause therapy.
If a person is a walk-in seeking services not prescribed by a clinician, that person's services may not be covered by his or her insurance. Coverage also depends on each person's particular insurance plan. Also offered at many Wellness Corners but generally not covered by insurance are mindfulness and meditation coaching, private yoga coaching, massage, personal fitness coaching, nutrition coaching, exercise classes and Botox injections. The individual coaching sessions can cost upwards of $80 per hour. Walker said people are willing to self-pay for these types of wellness services. She noted that discounts are available for low-income people. St. Joseph Health is considering selling paid memberships in the future, she said.
Walker said St. Joseph Health will add more Wellness Corners and it is exploring how to make the Wellness Corner model work in low-income communities.
Nisha Morris, director of media relations for St. Joseph Health, works out of the Irvine headquarters and, like Kim, is a Wellness Corner user. She said as a working mother, she has always prioritized her children's health but hasn't always taken the time to care for her own health. But after feeling overly fatigued over a long period of time, she went to the Wellness Corner. Morris said she was able to get right in for a physical. Wellness Corner clinicians advised her that a healthier lifestyle could restore her energy. She since has become a regular at the center, getting nutrition and exercise advice and has, over time, restored her energy.
"I am much more proactive about my health now," she said.
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