Cooperative dental hygiene

Apple Tree Dental and the Minnesota Department of Human Services have opened a first-of-its-kind joint dental clinic in Fergus Falls aimed at serving underrepresented communities.

Minnesota’s first public/nonprofit dental clinic has opened in Fergus Falls with the $5.1 million Center for Dental Health, which hosts Apple Tree Dental and Minnesota Department of Human Services Special Care Dentistry. The clinic was built from the ground up specifically to serve as a dental health clinic and opened in September. It held its virtual grand opening on Dec. 9.

Apple Tree Dental and Minnesota Department of Human Services have a shared mission to overcome barriers to dental health. “Apple Tree Dental’s specialty is providing care to low-income and underserved populations, especially people on Medicaid. DHS’ specialty is serving people with behavioral health needs and people with disabilities,” says Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead.

Both organizations already had offices in Fergus Falls and when they both faced a need for upgraded facilities, the idea to come together was formed. “We had a dental clinic in Fergus Falls and so did Apple Tree Dental and both of them needed tender love and care, shall we say, and so we decided to build this new clinic together and combine our efforts,” Harpstead said. “This new facility allows us to share some of the expensive imaging and lab equipment, sterilization equipment, but have separate treatment spaces for people to come to get their dental care there.”

Each organization will have its own entrance and waiting room, but share many things behind the scenes, including a sterilization area, digital imaging equipment, medical gases and other infrastructure. Apple Tree Dental CEO and co-founder Dr. Michael Helgeson says it goes beyond just the sharing of equipment and space, though. “There’s one office where all the dentists get to work, so they can network with one another, they can facilitate cross-referral together,” he says.

The center also has an I.V. sedation suite, one of the first of its kind of rural Minnesota. “It’s like a hospital operating room and recovery area, and in that area we can have an anesthesiology team and we can do IV sedation, kind of like for colonoscopies and things like that, so if we have patients that have complex behavioral problems or challenges, or if they’re medically very complex, or if they have extensive dental needs, we can take them into that new setting,” Helgeson said. “For maybe one-fifth or one-tenth the cost of going to the hospital operating room, we can provide, I would argue, even better care because it’s more focused on prevention and restoration and things like that.”

The new facility features ceiling lifts for patients in wheelchairs to help move them onto examination chairs, as well as better accessibility for patients with special needs. They’ve also been able to double the number of patients they can see, helping them progress on a waiting list of about 1,200 people.

At the grand opening, Fergus Falls mayor Ben Schierer said, “I’m incredibly impressed and excited, the technology that this center will employ to provide care to patients in this community and more than double the patient capacity. That’s great for our community. That’s a great vision, a great partnership.”

The building itself is owned by Apple Tree Dental, a private nonprofit organization. The Department of Human Services is renting their space in the building. Harpstead gives much of the credit for the establishment of the Center for Dental Health to Helgeson. “They really deserve the credit for pulling it all together and creating this. Dr. Mike Helgeson, their CEO, was the brains behind the whole operation and we’re so grateful for that,” Harpstead said. “We’ve had great respect for Apple Tree Dental for a long time and it just made so much sense when we both needed new facilities to put them into one place, share the expenses and dental equipment, and serve our various clients as they come in.”

Helgeson, meanwhile, says it was really a community effort, beginning with former director of public health for Otter Tail County, Diane Thorson, inviting Apple Tree Dental to Fergus Falls after they established a clinic in Hawley. “Access to dental care for people who are enrolled in Minnesota public programs has been a huge problem, especially in rural Minnesota, and Diane Thorson reached out to me years ago … . She was working on a number of approaches to trying to improve access to care in Fergus Falls,” Helgeson said.

From state and county offices, to the mayor and city council, from the public sector to the private sector, Helgeson says everyone worked together to make this clinic a reality. “I think in this time of COVID, where there’s so many struggles that everyone is going through, it’s a beautiful thing to see all of these parts of the community come together and create something that’s going to help 1,200 families that were on a waiting list and really left with nowhere to go, they’re going to be able to start to come in and get dental care and avoid painful abscesses and miss school, miss work, inability to eat, self-esteem, there’s just so many ways that good oral health impacts people’s wellbeing.”

Helgeson added, “A big thank you to everyone in Fergus Falls, to the city, the mayor, all the local contractors that did the lion’s share of the building, just everyone in Fergus Falls, this is their center for dental health. … The community created it, so they should be very proud.”

Harpstead says, “We’re always concerned about the lack of dental care in general, especially in greater Minnesota, even people that have really good dental coverage sometimes drive more than an hour to get to the nearest dentist.” She adds that dental care is the number one reason students miss school.

To receive care at the Department of Human Services Special Care Dentistry, patients need to have one of the medical conditions that are served there, whether it’s a disability or a behavioral health challenge. They do not need a referral from a physician.

Apple Tree Dental is able to serve everyone of any age, with or without insurance. “Most of our patients are on Minnesota public program insurance plans, the public plans that are out there, but we serve patients that have other insurance that choose to come and help support our program,” Helgeson says. “We have a sliding scale program so if there are people who are low income but maybe they’re not on a public program and they’re struggling to afford dental care, then we have a sliding scale program, we call them affordable care plans.”

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