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NEVADA CITY, CA February 22, 2022 – This month marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of Sierra Family Health Center by Peter Van Houten, MD.

What began as a small practice with two physicians and two nurse practitioners in North San Juan is now a thriving Federally Qualified Health Center with three locations providing over 25,000 patient visits each year.  

Current image of a portion of Sierra Family Health Center staff.

The story of the clinic’s origin and substantial growth still surprises Van Houten today. After moving to Ananda Village in 1980 upon completing his medical residency, Van Houten began a private practice in Nevada City. He soon noticed, however, that no healthcare services were available in his new home community of North San Juan.

In response, Van Houten opened a part-time clinic to serve his neighbors on The Ridge. “On my first day I saw 10 patients and I realized the area badly needed a full-time clinic,” says Van Houten. “I never looked back.”

He would open Sierra Family Medical Center on February 1, 1982, working out of a small rental unit and a trailer. In 1997, he oversaw the building of its current facility on Tyler Foote Road.

Groundbreaking for the current Sierra Family Health Center facility on Tyler Foote Road in 1997.

Today, the clinic serves 5,000 patients each year for their medical, dental, behavioral health and chiropractic care needs in Nevada and Yuba Counties. SFHC became a designated Federally Qualified Health Center in 2016.

The past four decades in healthcare haven’t always been easy, Van Houten shares. “Rural health centers like ours are now seen as a key component of health care in the US, but when we started in 1982, we didn’t fit the private practice medical model at all.”

The original sign for the clinic from 1982

As it turned out, the clinic was aligned with the future of medicine. “Offering medical care near where patients live, and making it easier to access, allowed us to become a key social hub in the community,” shares Van Houten.

SFHC has since added an additional health center in Oregon House and a clinic in Nevada City to provide behavioral health services.

Of all the accomplishments made via the clinic, Van Houten is most proud of the clinic’s early integration of behavioral health in primary care.

“In the 1990s I realized how much a patient’s mental health status affected their health care, especially in an underserved population like ours,” says Van Houten. “Before it was the norm, we developed an integrated model of health care with behavioral health, medical and dental treatments all in one place.”

When he found that some patient’s physical symptoms were not responding to treatment with medications and standard treatments, Van Houten began applying his advanced psychiatry training to patient care. He followed by embedding therapists into the medical practice.

Today, all Sierra Family Health Center medical providers have advanced training in psychiatry for primary care medicine.

In addition, Van Houten has developed an interactive approach to providing care based on three pillars: kindness, integrity and transparency. He teaches this approach in healthcare settings.

“Our approach offers a way of being with each patient that includes authentic listening, relating, empathy, curiosity, and collaboration. We partner with our patients to understand their needs and goals, so we can know how to best serve them,” says Van Houten. The health center staff will be celebrating the 40th Anniversary later this year with an outdoor gathering for friends, family, patients and neighbors. Visit sierraclinic.org or call 530-292-3478 for more information or to inquire about becoming a patient.