For hospitals, focusing on wellness and prevention can be a struggle at times, with patients who claim they're too busy to make a doctor's appointment or hit the gym. One California health system, however, is looking to topple that hurdle to health, debuting "Wellness Corners" around Orange County — employer-based, one-stop shops for everything from primary care to fitness training.

Seven-hospital St. Joseph Hoag Health started down this path a couple of years ago, building such a clinic for its own employees as a way to bust the excuse that it is hard to step away from work to care for one's health. But the health network, an affiliation between two separate health systems, quickly realized that other employers in its Southern California service area were grappling with similar challenges, says Annette Walker, executive vice president of strategic services at St. Joseph Health.

Stemming from that partnership, St. Joseph and Hoag Health wanted to build a reputation in the community as being go-to institutions for preventive health and wellness programs.

"Our health system has a long, rich tradition of being a high-intensity, high-acuity provider. Boy, if anything is really wrong with you, we're great. We know how to fix it," Walker says. "But, we have a goal to have the community see us as their health partner, not their sick partner."

Partnering with planning and real estate firm the Irvine Co., the health system has already built three of its Wellness Corners in easily accessible locations near employment centers or housing complexes, possibly with more on the way. The corners are typically about 1,000 square feet with an exam room and telemedicine suite, they operate between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., and are staffed by a nurse practitioner and medical assistant, with shared employees among locations based on daily traffic. Services offered include primary care, treatment of minor illnesses, lab services, fitness training, wellness coaching, sports physicals, nutrition counseling and stress management. They're designed to feature a different vibe than your typical hospital, full of sunshine, colorful, and much less "institutional looking," Walker says.

The system already has seen some benefits from its own on-campus wellness center that debuted June 2013, with employees reporting a 29 percent decrease in inactivity and 18.5 percent drop in stress. St. Joseph Hoag Health certainly isn't alone in looking to tap into medical fitness and other wellness services, as Todd Sloane explored in our February issue. Thomas Stover, president and CEO of Akron General, thinks such facilities will be ubiquitous in 15 years or so. "With costs rising and reimbursement falling, we have no choice. The ‘sick care' model is broken," he told Sloane.

One of the biggest challenges for St. Joseph Hoag Health thus far has been educating patients about the purpose of such Wellness Corners, and avoiding confusion in the market. Is it a retail clinic? An urgent care clinic? A gym? Patients who are clamoring for such offerings might take a while to adjust and actually start using them regularly.

"If Henry Ford had gone to the public and said ‘what do you want in a car?' they would have drawn a horse," Walker says. "Everybody in their head has such a fixed idea of health care and I think sometimes can't even imagine what might be different."

Also, it may take a while for the Wellness Corners to start making money, as they aren't yet breaking even. She encourages hospital leaders to give such wellness-focused innovations a chance, and not pull the plug before they catch on.

"The hardest thing for traditional systems is letting innovation have a chance at making it," Walker says. "We can't just keep our focus on all of the big-picture things and then let the disruptors come around and beat the pants off us. Be open to innovation and trying new things. Some of them will work and some won't."