(photo above) State representative Erin Murphy visited CHI St. Gabriel’s Health and Apple Tree Dental. Representative Murphy, who sits on the state Health and Human Services Reform committee, was interested in seeing Apple Tree Dental’s new location on campus and learn about efforts to integrate oral health into primary care. Pictured left to right: Dr. Katie Johnson, DDS, MN State Representative Erin Murphy; and Connie Karjalahti, RDH, DT (dental therapist).

There is a strong link between oral health and overall health, but for many families in Morrison County, the barriers for accessing oral health care are great. To address this issue, Family Medical Center, an entity of CHI St. Gabriel’s Health, and Apple Tree Dental have teamed up to improve oral health access and preventative care for community members.

In January, CHI St. Gabriel’s Health, in partnership with Apple Tree Dental, was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Health.

“The vision for this project is focused on integrating oral health care with medical care,” says Dr. Michael Helgeson, DDS, chief executive officer of Apple Tree Dental. “This is the direction health care is going. We’re putting the mouth back in the body.”

Family Medical Center and Apple Tree Dental staff decided to apply for the grant because of both a great need and an even greater opportunity to improve access to oral health care. According to the 2016 County Health Rankings, Morrison County has a high population to dentist ratio at 3280 people per dentist, which is over twice as high as state and national ratios.

“Access to dental providers is an issue in Morrison County,” says Family Medical Center administrator Rhonda Buckallew. “This is especially true for low-income residents. Patients have been traveling long distances for dental care.”

Apple Tree Dental staff also saw this need. “We really became aware of the issue when we started seeing patients from Morrison County showing up at our Coon Rapids location,” says Karen Engstrom, Chief Operating Officer of Apple Tree Dental. “We knew we had to do something.”

Helgeson adds, “We saw an opportunity for action. There was great interest, a willingness to collaborate, and space available allowing us to locate on the St. Gabriel’s Hospital campus.”

The grant initiative includes a pilot project offering dental varnishing within Family Medical Center during well-child visits, increasing oral health education and screening, coordinating the flow of oral health and medical health information between Family Medical Center and Apple Tree Dental, and making referrals for patients with chronic health conditions.

Apple Tree Dental has also increased the number of days and hours of the Little Falls operation. The clinic is located on third floor of the Unity Specialty Center at CHI St. Gabriel’s Health, making a dental appointment very convenient for Family Medical Center patients. The clinic is open Thursdays and Fridays and is staffed by dentists, a dental therapist, a dental hygienist, dental assistants, and a care coordinator.

The partnership between Family Medical Center and Apple Tree Dental is a natural fit.

“Our model of care is focused on caring for the needs of whole person rather than care focused on a specific condition,” says Buckallew. “Addressing oral health issues aligns with our patient-centered, ‘whole person’ approach to care. “

Dr. Helgeson agrees the partnership makes sense. “We have long been known as a community collaborative practice,” says Helgeson. “Partnering with Family Medical Center to bring together the best care for patients has been a logical extension of this for us.”

The outlook looks positive.

“We are optimistic about this project and are grateful for the relationships we have established with CHI St. Gabriel’s Health and our other community partners, including South County Health Alliance, Morrison County Public Health, and now the Minnesota Department of Health,” says Helgeson.

“The integration of oral health care with medical care will benefit the community,” says Buckallew. “The overall result will be better health outcomes for our patients.”

For more information about the project, contact Rhonda Buckallew at 631-7200 or Apple Tree Dental at 631-5653.

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