Dr. Barr: A Chicagoland Native, Serving His Community Through Dentistry

Dr. Barr is a Chicagoland native who earned his undergraduate degree in Psychology and Bioscience in just three years at the University of Illinois. He was accepted to Northwestern University Dental School at the young age of 19. He went on to complete a general practice residency at Northwestern’s Lakeside VA hospital with an emphasis on restorative dentistry and medicine.

He has served the community in private practice for over four decades, adding to his expertise with 80 to 100 hours of continuing education each year. 

Dr. Barr was honored as one of Chicago’s top 20 dentists by Chicago Magazine in January 2017. This prestigious award is voted for by dentists from Chicagoland.

Dr. Barr answers 15 questions about dentistry that show us his expertise, his heart, and his sense of humor.

1. How did you feel about going to the dentist when you were younger?

Going to the dentist was not an overwhelmingly enjoyable experience for me when I was younger. My family dentist kept these long syringes with huge needles in a clear glass jar right in eyesight. Talk about marketing! It really scared me. Even then, I knew there was something wrong with this approach.

Going to the orthodontist was a really cool experience and I loved the practice. Watching smiles develop and a relaxed sort of hip atmosphere was both comforting and intriguing to me. I guess that’s where I started to gain an interest in the field.

2. What or who inspired you to become a dentist?

My father was a chemist and my mother was an artist. So I guess the genes split 50/50. I always loved building things and putting things together, and science was both fascinating and easy to grasp. When I built my model cars, mine always looked better than my friends, and I didn’t get the glue all over the place!

3. What piece of advice would you give prospective dentists today?

Being a dentist is the most rewarding profession in the world. I would say to embrace technology, keep learning, and if you don’t love interacting with people, find a different career.

Dentistry is continuously changing and takes a sincere effort to stay current. I don’t do any procedure in the exact way I was taught in dental school. And I got a fantastic education at Northwestern.

I often say if you don’t enjoy the procedures you are doing now, wait six months and you will be doing something else. That’s how fast the profession evolves, especially if one commits to staying cutting edge.

4. What’s your favorite reaction you’ve gotten after telling someone that you’re a dentist?

An attorney once said to me upon learning I was a dentist: Thank God for dentists. Otherwise, there would only be lawyer jokes!

5. What skills are essential for your job that most people don’t associate with dentistry?

Without question, understanding human behavior and learning how and why people act as they do is critical to being a successful dentist. People are not broomsticks with teeth attached. And everybody is unique and special.

I truly believe that all the technical skills can be taught, but, as the expression goes, “nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Treating people like family is the key to success and feeling good about yourself. It far surpasses any material gains one could ever dream of attaining in this wonderful profession.

6. How has dentistry changed since you started?

Nothing is the same since I started my career. I started my practice 43 years ago at the age of 24. I was the youngest licensed dentist in Illinois for two years.

Dentistry now has a medical discipline that specializes in the oral cavity and surrounding structures. I started out as a tooth carpenter. Now I help my medical colleagues keep my patients’ overall health and well-being at an optimal level.

7. What is your favorite piece of modern dental technology and why?

Without a doubt, my CEREC machine has brought me the greatest thrill and renewed passion to a profession that one can easily burn out from. I was one of the earliest proponents of CAD/CAM high-tech dentistry, and the “wow factor” has literally amazed thousands of patients.

I have done nearly 15,000 CEREC crowns, and combined with My 3-D Cone Beam X-ray machine, I am able to accomplish things I never could have even dreamt. And I hope to continue to embrace technology that leads me into new endeavors. 

8. Where do you see the future of dentistry going?

Sadly, I am afraid that the student debt, and the real numbers, will easily thwart the potential for quality dentistry. Too much emphasis on profit and overhead, and not enough care for the true needs of a trusting public.

The millennial generation does not feel the same way about keeping appointments, respecting the doctor as the respected authority, and sadly, many of the prospective dentists are satisfied with a nine-to-job.

I do, however, remain convinced that there will always be those who care, and those patients who will seek out a practice where the highest quality is demanded.

9. What unexpected lessons or skills has being a dentist taught you?

I never wanted to practice medicine per se, because I didn’t want to experience the death of a patient, especially if it remotely connected to my decisions. Little did I realize that my dental  patients would become as close and important to me as my own family, and that when you have multiple generations of patients, it is appropriate and natural that losing patients will still hurt.

I am much wiser now than at 20, so I have gained an understanding that these feelings go with caring about people. I am just a better person to have been part of their lives.

10. What do you love about your job?

Obviously, I love everything about the practice of dentistry. But being a part of an extended family of patients is a feeling that is hard to describe.

I love doing a good job, and I love being paid fairly for what I do, but I never have measured success in dollars.

It’s all about doing what I love, on the patients that I love, with a staff that I love.

11. What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced during your dentistry career?

Learning the business aspect is always a tricky proposition, but money was never my primary motivation. I had to learn to control my obsession with perfection. I wanted everything to be the best that it could be. I still fight that every day. As they say, “perfection is the enemy of excellence.

I also had to learn to separate my patients’ troubles from my dentistry. My staff would sometimes accuse me of “giving away the store” because my patient might be going through a rough time. I’ve tried to stay out of the finances and concentrate on the dentistry. That’s still a work in progress.

12. How did you overcome this challenge?

I’m still working on this. Staying out of the picture helps, but in my heart I know I am just grateful to do the work, even if I am paid less.You can’t always measure success or self-worth with dollars. As the bible says, “Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with what he has.”

13. Beyond brushing, flossing, using mouthwash, and routine dental visits, what is one piece of oral health-care advice you’d like to share with your patients?

Don’t get lazy. Keep working at it. Buy an electric toothbrush. And remember that dental pain is an end stage disease. By the time it hurts, it’s bad….and expensive. And keep flossing!

Oral health is a vital part of the overall person’s well-being. Every day we learn more about how serious and life threatening an unhealthy mouth can be. And it is preventable.

14. What mistakes do patients commonly make that actually harm their teeth?

The energy drinks are an acid bath for teeth and are potentially very destructive. We warn our patients all the time to drink water. Another issue is that as people live longer, the medications we all are on dry out the mouth, leading to rampant tooth decay. Just about every medicine has that affect.

15. You are known for running a very giving practice. What motivates you to be so giving to others in your practice?

I love being in a profession where I can help people get better and stay healthier. It is a profession where kindness is appreciated by my patient family. I get great personal satisfaction treating people, not just teeth.

As a person who is guided by my religious beliefs, I feel that kindness and helping others is an important goal of my lifetime.

If I can leave the world knowing I was a giver and not a taker, then I will feel that I did the right thing.