20 Questions: John Callahan, DDS, MS

Dr. John Callahan is an orthodontist in private practice since 1982 at Callahan, Flanagan and Smith Orthodontics, with three offices in New York. Dr. Callahan works with business partners Dr. Tom Flanagan and Dr. Vince Smith, as well as associate Dr. Greg Stock, in their offices in Fayetteville, North Syracuse and Fulton. Dr. Callahan earned his bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame University, and then he attended Georgetown University where he earned his DDS. He went on to St. Louis University, where he earned a post-doctoral degree in orthodontics.
Currently, Dr. Callahan is president of the Northeastern Society of Orthodontists, one of eight constituent societies of the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), which includes New York, New England, and the eastern Canadian provinces. He is also a member of the AAO Council on Insurance, and the AAO House of Delegates to the AAO. His wife is a professor of law and public policy in the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University, and his son attended Rochester Institute of Technology and is now an entrepreneur in the Rochester area.
When did you first decide to become an orthodontist? Why?
I am 57 and graduated from college in 1976. If you think the economy is bad now, you should have seen the gas lines back then. I opted for dental school because I was looking for an excellent profession that would allow me to be “my own boss.” Once in dental school, I realized that orthodontics was what I wanted to do.
How/why did you choose the school you went to?
Georgetown University’s dental program was one of the elite programs on the east coast and in Washington, D.C. I wanted to go there for the program and to experience the city. I then went to St. Louis University’s orthodontic program for the same reasons. It offered a great program, but was in a different part of the country.
What surprised you the most about your studies?
What most surprised me about my studies was the volume of information that we were immersed in, and the realization that the research and technology (even then) was changing so rapidly that keeping up was both exciting and daunting.
If you had it to do all over again, would you still become an orthodontist? (Why or why not? What would you have done instead?)
I am fortunate to be a part of the greatest profession ever. Would do it again? Yes, in a second. I wish that everyone could feel as strongly about what they do as I feel about being an orthodontist.
Has being an orthodontist met your expectations? Why?
Being orthodontist has met my expectations in every way. My goals were to obtain a great skill-set, work with people, improve their perception of themselves, and be my own boss. Being an orthodontist has allowed me to meet those goals.
What do you like most about being an orthodontist?
What I like most about being an orthodontist is that every day we see young people (and not so young) go from having crooked, unflattering, unhealthy mouths to beautiful, healthy, vibrant smiles. It’s the best. And then, over the years, seeing them all over town and all over the world with those wonderful smiles is really cool.
What do you like least about being an orthodontist?
There’s nothing I don’t like, really. I like everything about being an orthodontist. I have told many people that I so enjoy being an orthodontist that I would do orthodontics for nothing. I get paid for running a small business. That being said, there are always issues and headaches, of course. It can be challenging. However, at the end of the day, being an orthodontist and running my own small business is, for me, much better than working for someone else.
What was it like finding a job in your chosen career field? What were your options and why did you decide what you did?
In the early 1980s, most graduating residents moved right out into private practice. It was unusual then for someone to associate with another practitioner. I felt I could go anywhere in the country and be successful. My father was an orthodontist. I initially wanted no part of joining his practice. He was very successful and an icon in the community. I wished to establish myself. However, once I understood the talent he had, it made sense for me to join him for “a little while” for the experience. It was the best decision I ever made (with the exception of marrying my wife).
Describe a typical day at work.
We generally work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Our staff meets for a morning “huddle” to review the schedule and the day. We see approximately 70 to 75 patients during the day. We always try and take an hour lunch so we can be refreshed for the afternoon.
On average: How many hours a week do you work? How many hours do you sleep per night? How many weeks of vacation do you take?
I see patients on average from 30 to 36 hours a week. Of course, that doesn’t include all the time spent outside the hours I see patients doing the practice management work.I sleep seven and a half hours a night, usually. I take about three to four weeks of vacation annually.
Are you satisfied with your income?
Yes. Absolutely.
If you took out educational loans, is/was paying them back a financial strain?
My educational loans were not too much of an issue when I graduated. It is a very big issue for those graduating today and very much affects their decision-making.
In your position now, knowing what you do – what would you say to yourself 10 years ago?
Ten years ago, my advice would have been to stay educated, stay focused and keep having fun. All of which I still think I do.
What information/advice do you wish you had known when you were beginning school?
In school, we had very little training in small business development, and I would have appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the business side of running a practice. This is still an issue today.
From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in healthcare today?
From my perspective, the biggest issue in healthcare today is that politicians got involved. This question should be left to those smarter than I, but I believe that no matter what the eventual outcome, I hope that consumers are empowered to make their own proactive choices about their healthcare.
Where do you see orthodontics in 10 years?
In 10 years, orthodontics will be very different (new technology and applications), very exciting (new technology uses and applications/advances), and still fabulous.
What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any?
Giving back is what we should all do both individually and professionally. For example; over the last six to seven years, two members of our staff have spent the better part of January through March going to elementary schools throughout our area teaching the children basics about dental health—not orthodontics. We did this because the schools had to drop their hygienists due to cost cutting. These wonderful members of our office have spoken to more than 8,000 students.
How do you spend your free time? Any hobbies?
I am fortunate to live on a lake. So fishing, swimming, boating come with the territory. I also enjoy golfing and scuba diving.
Do you have family, and if so, do you have enough time to spend with them? How do you balance work and life?
I have been happily married now for 30 years. I have a son, 23, who is now out on his own and working as a small business entrepreneur. My wife is a professor at Syracuse University. One may argue that you never have enough time to spend with family, but it needs to be a priority. It is a reason I went into dentistry instead of medicine. I felt medicine was a 24/7 commitment that left little time for family. Dentistry is not like that. Balancing work and life is a continuous challenge. The scales are always tipping one way or the other. It is a matter of recognizing that this is an issue and doing the best one can.
Do you have any final piece of advice for students interested in pursuing orthodontics as a career?
My final piece(s) of advice are to visit as many orthodontist offices as you can. Be willing to practice in multiple locations. There are areas of the country where there is a great need. There are areas which are saturated. Always think long-term. Orthodontists are small business entrepreneurs. Many have a great debt load coming out of their programs and it may seem stifling. However, with a good business plan and personal plan, orthodontics is, without a doubt, the best profession period.