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Tom’s story

May 12, 2021
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Headshot of Tom Barber

Dr. Barber didn’t always want to go into medicine—he originally wanted to be a journalist.

“I’m curious about people and their stories. I believe we can make the world a little bit better by communicating with each other and by sharing important information,” he says.

But his plans changed late in college when he decided he wanted to follow in his maternal grandparents’ footsteps. His grandfather had enrolled in medical school after serving in World War I because there was money available for soldiers to continue their education. At the same time, medical schools were starting to admit women because so many young men had died during the war. Dr. Barber’s grandmother—who was originally an apprentice hatmaker—decided that she wanted to be a doctor too. The two met in medical school in Aberdeen in northern Scotland before settling in London, where they had their own practices: Dr. Barber’s grandfather was a general practitioner and his grandmother was a pediatrician.

Although he took a different path than he originally planned, Dr. Barber has enjoyed his career in medicine. “I’ve been super happy in my work, and it was a good decision. No regrets,” he says.

When Dr. Barber first started his medical career in the 1980s, he initially planned to be a primary care doctor. But the AIDS crisis was just beginning, and he instead spent six years specializing in HIV. With the current pandemic, Dr. Barber says there are some similarities and differences between how HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 developed. 

“That epidemic unfolded very slowly. Someone would get infected and it could be years before they had symptoms. It was a very slow rolling and deadly epidemic,” he says. “When the COVID pandemic began, it brought back very intense memories of being an AIDS doctor and working with people with a viral infection that was new that we didn’t know much about.”

Dr. Barber says the whole world, including the scientific and clinical communities, as well as politicians and government officials, focused on AIDS when the epidemic hit, just like the whole world is focusing on COVID now.

Today, Dr. Barber is an associate medical director at CCA and a staff physician at one of the CCA primary care offices. He has been with CCA since August 2014. He had been following the company’s work for a while and one day, feeling inspired, he reached out to Dr. Robert Master, cofounder and previous president and CEO of CCA. “On a whim, I asked him for a job. In half an hour, we shook hands and I was in,” Dr. Barber says. At the time, CCA had just launched CCA One Care and was beginning to expand throughout Massachusetts, and Dr. Barber was able to see and participate in some of those changes.

Since then, Dr. Barber has been a key member of the CCA primary care team, helping patients live safely and independently at home. When COVID-19 first hit, he asked to be involved in the CCA COVID response. “I was grateful for the opportunity to be involved, to get myself educated, and to educate other people,” he says.

Tom’s dedication to his patients landed him a spot on Boston Magazine’s Top Doctors list in 2021

The pandemic also changed how the CCA primary care offices operate. The practices are now doing more virtual visits, which they weren’t really doing before COVID. “For some of our patients with disabilities, that was a real challenge,” he says. Some didn’t have video capability, while others had trouble speaking or holding a device. In recent months, the CCA primary care offices have transitioned back to doing some home care and in-office visits with limited bookings to ensure social distancing.

Dr. Barber says although he is glad to have video capability, his preference is to see patients in person. He also likes being able to do home visits because they provide a more complete picture of the patient’s needs. He has one patient that he’s been seeing for two decades, but it wasn’t until he visited her home that he realized he didn’t know much about her or her home situation.

“She had this little dog that came up yapping and she says, ‘Down, Clarice!’ When I asked about the name she said, ‘Dr. Barber, you think you know me, but you don’t know me. I’m French-Canadian and I speak French, and Clarice speaks French.’” He compared seeing her at home to “The Wizard of Oz.”

“I felt like I knew this lady for 20 years in black and white, and then I went into her apartment and it was in technicolor,” he says.

“That’s what makes our primary care different than traditional practices. We get to know our patients on a deeper level. As we work on a care plan, we try to get a much richer sense of who they really are and what matters to them most.”

With multiple COVID-19 vaccines now available and travel starting to open back up, Dr. Barber is looking forward to being able to visit family again. “I have a son and daughter-in-law in California. I’d love to see them,” he says. He is also looking forward to visiting and spending time with his wife’s family in Italy and his own family in England. “That’s what I miss the most,” he says.

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