Miles of Smiles

Miles of Smiles

For years children were coming to Lehigh Valley Health Network’s dental clinic at 17th and Chew Streets for regular check-up visits but few returned for restorations, extractions or more serious cases. When parents were asked why they didn’t bring their children back for much needed follow-up the response was often, “I couldn’t take any more time off from work.”  Often the families had multiple children, limited transportation and dental care was simply not a priority.

The staff at Lehigh Valley Health Network, realized it needed to find a way to bring dental services to the children instead of the other way around. The network formed an “access to care” committee to figure out how to best meet the dental care needs of under and uninsured children.  Initially Pat Atno, Practice Director of the Department of Dental Medicine at LVH, thought a van would suffice and students suffering from toothaches would be treated on the vehicle.  When Atno visited a classroom at Central Elementary School and asked who had a toothache that day almost every hand went up.  She then realized a van was not going to cut it and that a large, full-service dental unit was needed.

Thanks to generous funding, corporate donations and community grant money, the Miles of Smiles mobile unit was purchased from LifeLineMobile.  In April, 2009 the mobile dental unit began servicing four elementary schools in the Allentown School District.  Since then, “Miles” as the unit is affectionately referred to, is at Central Elementary School every Monday and Wednesday, at Sheridan Elementary School every Tuesday, at Roosevelt Elementary School every Thursday and at Washington Elementary School every Friday, year round.  Students from those schools are seen during school hours and prior to and after school any student from the Allentown School District is welcome.

During the summer months students from any school district are welcome.  The unit is consistently at the same locations year round, reinforcing Miles of Smiles as a dental home.  “We want parents to know where to bring their children regardless of what month it is,” says Atno.

To date the Miles of Smiles program has seen over 7,000 patients through 12,000 visits and 40,000 procedures have been performed, amounting to $2.5 million in charity care.  Atno says they could easily see more children if only exams were performed, but that’s not her goal.  “We are touching lives and creating a dental home for these children. They are seeing the same dentist at the same location on the same day of the week throughout elementary school and beyond. We are their dental care provider,” Atno proudly explains.

According to Beverly Wachtmann, one of three certified school dental hygienists in the Allentown School District, the Miles of Smiles Mobile Dental Unit has not only improved the dental health of students but their overall health. Before Miles of Smiles the school hygienists, caring for almost 18,000 students, came up against many hurdles attempting to obtain dental care for students – lack of insurance for follow-through care, limited space at dental clinics, parents without transportation – to name a few. With Miles of Smiles providing care at four elementary schools selected by the school district, many of those barriers have been removed.

Prior to this program on average a child in the Allentown School District missed two weeks of school due to a tooth ache.  Attendance has improved and children are poised to be happier, healthier and more successful. “We love the van,” says Wachtmann. “Healthier children come to school and are better students.”

Miles of Smiles is 40 feet long by nine feet wide, equipped with two treatment rooms, a digital x-ray unit, a central sterilizing device, a registration area and a wheelchair lift. Staffed by a driver who is also trained as a medical secretary, a dental assistant who is a certified bilingual interpreter, a dental hygienist and a dentist, Miles of Smiles is a customized, full-service dental clinic. In addition to the permanent staff on the mobile unit, Atno relies on the 60+ volunteer dentists who support the program as well as many other specialists throughout Lehigh Valley Health Network.

Today Miles of Smiles is a model for other communities.  The program was recently awarded a 5-year $375,000 grant by the Foundation of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry through its Healthy Smiles, Healthy Children initiative.  As a result, “Miles” will get some routine maintenance including new gas tanks and upgraded heating systems. With the program in full-swing and running well, Atno’s wish list is small but includes a parking bay to house the mobile unit during inclement weather. Other than that she is proud of the program, grateful to the staff and volunteers and thrilled to be providing a dental home to so many children.



Dental disease is preventable, yet dental care is the most common unmet health treatment need in children, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCLS).  In the U.S., nine million children lack health insurance and more than twice that number lack access to oral health services.  Untreated dental caries (tooth decay) can lead to pain, weight loss, missed school days, poor appearance, decreased self-esteem and even death.  In the Allentown School District 60% of the students do not have
dental coverage.

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