SONOMA COUNTY - St. Joseph Health System will unveil this month a health management initiative officials hope will "better the health of the local work force" and better connect its nonprofit hospitals and services with area companies.

St. Joseph Health Sonoma County, which operates 279-bed Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and the 80-bed Petaluma Valley Hospital, earlier this month signed a contract with business strategy developers Aegis Health Group of Nashville, Tenn. The company will design and implement a health management program for local employers meant to identify their health risks and offer preventative programs to reduce health plan costs.

"For us locally, we were looking for ways to enhance our relationship with employers in the county, so that when they or their employees do need inpatient care, hopefully they will think of us," said Mark Knight, vice president of strategic services for St. Joseph Health System Sonoma County.

He said while the organization would like the project to increase patient volume to the hospital, the effort was started more out of a desire to spread awareness about preventative health care in the county.

"Our goal is to show employers how they can manage health costs themselves by reducing their risks," Aegis President and Chief Executive Officer Henry Ross said.

On its Web site, Aegis says its program "links the specific health needs of premium reimbursed employees with aligned health professionals; enhances revenue growth through the promotion of occupational health or industrial medicine service lines; influences the health benefit plan purchasing decisions of area employers; and promotes hospital services lines to consumers most in need of such services."

The initiative will officially begin sometime in the next few weeks once an employer relations specialist is hired. Businesses voluntarily sign up for the program, which begins with a no- or low-cost, anonymous work force health assessment. Using software developed by Aegis, the assessment aggregates data and shows the employer its highest health risk areas. Another tool can calculate how much that risk could increase health care benefit costs if nothing is done to mitigate them.

Then, based on the assessment and the employer's decision to pursue a wellness program, the business is connected with wellness programs either run by St. Joseph or from another provider. A spokesman for the nonprofit hospital said the organization will likely develop more wellness programs, but it is not its goal to compete with others already providing those services.

Currently, St. Joseph offers several free or low-cost wellness classes, including for infant safety and CPR, prenatal care, newborn care, breastfeeding support, yoga, pilates, stress reduction, cooking classes, gardening, grief support and spiritual enrichment.

The organization might work with partner Northern California Center for Well-Being to provide more traditional wellness programs like smoking cessation and diabetes management, though it has not yet decided details of the arrangement.