Special needs a specialty of Apple Tree Dental





Appropriate and competent dental care is needed for every population. Apple Tree Dental is a nonprofit group dental practice specializing in geriatric and special needs dental care.

Starting 31 years ago in 1985, the clinic was initially founded around the care of older adults and in-house older adults who lived in long-term care facilities or needed home health services. Dr. Michael Helgeson, Apple Tree CEO and one of the founders, told MSR, “The founders of Apple Tree have a strong history in geriatric dentistry.

“That group in particular faces a lot of barriers to care, including their general health condition, their cognitive conditions, and other conditions that make it particularly hard to provide those services for them. Also, living in institutions gives them transportation barriers.”

Helgeson went through a two-year post-graduate program in geriatrics and special care dentistry. He proudly stated, “There are not too many dentist in the nation that have that kind of training for treating older adults, in particular older adults with more chronic problems such as frail older adults; [there are] also younger adults with special needs.

“They may have developmental disabilities, brain injuries, mental health issues, cognitive impairment, or a wide variety of conditions that require some special adaptations and different approaches that a general dentist may not be comfortable with,” Helgeson explained.

He also was in the public health field for four years and has experience working with underserved populations, low-income families, and service in rural communities. He brings the background of special care (working with populations that may need modified dental care) and public dental health to his work, which he says “is part of the DNA of Apple Tree Dental.”

Helgeson continued, “Many frail older adults end up spending the remaining of their savings on their healthcare needs and the majority, about three-quarters, become dependent on Medicaid when they are in long-term care facilities. The Medicaid program provides very little dental benefits, and it pays very little for dentistry. So there are financial barriers that are faced by that population as well.”

Based on this need, the clinic developed new ways of care. They developed mobile, portable dental equipment and bring this equipment to their patients inside nursing homes, which helps to coordinate services with nursing staff and direct care givers. This opens up opportunities to give care where patients live. “Providing care where they live was one of the first innovations of Apple Tree Dental 31 years ago,” said Helgeson.

Today, they provide services to over 80 long-term care facilities in Minnesota. “Since 1985, we have developed programs that are similar to the special needs programs that reach low-income children at Head Start centers. We have school-based programs where we provide services to predominantly low-income families at their schools. We are delivering services to a mental health facility down in Rochester for patients with mental illness and chemical dependency.”

They also deliver care out in the community through mobile and portable systems. They call their clinics “Centers for Dental Health,” and they provide services to everyone, meaning they are open to the public. Currently, their centers for dental health in Minnesota are located in Holly, Fergus Falls, Coon Rapids, Mounds View, Madelia and Rochester. Their mobile and portable delivery systems serve the communities around those six main clinics.

What does the future hold for Apple Tree Dental? “We are looking forward to bridging the worlds of medical health and dental health. Over the last 30 years there has been more and more research that shows the connection between general health outcomes and dental health outcomes. Heart disease and diabetes are two conditions that are generally affected by conditions of the mouth,” Helgeson stated.

Apple Tree Dental looks forward to advocating for and educating more communities about special needs dental care and providing dental care to those who need it.


For more information on Apple Tree clinics, visit their website at www.appletreedental.org or call them at 763-754-5780. This story was made possible by a grant from the Medtronic Foundation.

Brandi D. Phillips welcomes reader responses to bphillips@spokesman-recorder.com.