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Q&A with Toronto Rehab Medical Director, Anthony Burns

As a member of RHI’s Translational Research Advisory Committee, Access to Care and Timing initiative and the Knowledge Mobilization Network, Dr. Anthony Burns provides invaluable expertise and insight to the development and evaluation of our research programs. He was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University (Philadelphia) and Assistant Director of the Regional SCI Center of the Delaware Valley – during which time, he was also appointed an adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, Drexel University College of Medicine. In 2007, Dr. Burns joined the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute as the Medical Director of the Spinal Cord Rehabilitation Program, the largest programof its kind in Canada. He also holds a faculty appointment as an Associate Professor in the Division of Physiatry, Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on prognosis and outcomes following traumatic SCI, strategies for the prevention and treatment of secondary complications, andthe importance of delivery models and systems to health maintenance following SCI.

Where were you born? Chicago, Illinois on November 4, 1968.

Where did you go to school? I earned a BSc in Biology, at Penn State University, in Pennsylvania; and then studied Medicine at Yale, in Connecticut. My combined residency in Internal Medicine and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation was done at Johns Hopkins University-Sinai Hospital, in Baltimore; and then I completed a Spinal Cord Medicine Fellowship at the University of Alabama, in Birmingham.  Later, I returned to school to earn my MSc in Clinical Investigation at Thomas Jefferson University, in Philadelphia.

Why did you choose to study medicine? The life sciences were always my favorite area of study. Medicine is a challenging and intellectually 

Burns_Athony_lowresDr. Anthony Burns, Medical Director of the Spinal Cord Rehabilitation Program, Toronto Rehabilitation Institute

stimulating field that, at the same, time allows one to make important contributions to the lives of individuals and society.


Was there a professor/mentor who particularly inspired you? I have been fortunate to work with many outstanding and dedicated people, and I would not single out any one individual.

What was your first job after University? Following the completion of fellowship training, I joined the faculty of Thomas Jefferson University in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine. I was also the Assistant Director of the Regional Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Center of the Delaware Valley.

What motivated you to become a Physiatrist? I had the opportunity to do a Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation rotation as a medical student, and was immediately struck by the difference rehabilitation made in the lives of individuals. The goal of helping someone recover from a life-altering injury or illness, in order to maximize function and quality of life, appealed to me. Working with and providing care as part of an interdisciplinary team was also attractive.

Why is spinal cord injury research important to you? As a clinician who cares for individuals with spinal cord injuries, I feel it is my obligation to continually question and examine how we can do things better. Everyone doing their part helps contribute to the field moving forward as a whole. Intellectually, spinal cord medicine is a fascinating and challenging area.

How does your work apply to other health conditions? Many of the principles and approaches to care are applicable to other severe injuries – like stroke and traumatic brain injury. The field of rehabilitation, as a whole, owes many of its roots to the development of spinal cord injury rehabilitation during and after World War II.

Where do you think the next breakthrough will be? No one knows but there are many promising areas of research from cell transplantation to the prevention of secondary complications.

What is a typical work day for you? The short answer is ‘busy’! I wear many hats which include administrative oversight of a large clinical program, participation in scholarly activities and research as a University of Toronto faculty member; and seeing patients in various clinics. The variety certainly keeps the job interesting. There is never a dull moment.

What have you learned through your work that you apply to your life? My area of work certainly helps keep one grounded. It gives one an appreciation for what can be accomplished with patience, perseverance, and hard work.  We see examples every day.


How would you describe the importance of the Institute‘s work? The institute serves as an important focal point to help galvanize and bring together the field, both in Canada and abroad. The end result is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

What would you say to someone thinking about entering the field of SCI research? It is a rewarding and fascinating field. You will never question whether what you do is important and worthwhile. Having said that, one should not expect or require instant gratification.

Is there a motto or words that you live by? Yes, “treat every patient like your mother”.