Our People: Meet Dr. Tim Doherty, MD, PhD, FRCPC

What do you know about the people you pass in the hall or see in the cafeteria every day? What do they do at St. Joseph’s?

Here we will introduce you to a member of the St. Joseph’s family, recognizing their contribution to respect, excellence and compassion.

Dr. Tim Doherty, Chief physiatrist at Parkwood Institute was recently chosen as the recipient of the prestigious 2018 Award of Merit from the Canadian Association of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. The award is given to recognize those who have made significant contributions to the field of physiatry; through research, education, advocacy, medical care, humanitarianism, mentorship, and/or the advancement of the field.


Dr. Tim Doherty has a number of roles at St. Joseph’s. His primary one is as the city-wide chair chief of the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) at Parkwood Institute. PM&R is involved in the clinical care and rehabilitation of patients with acquired brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, amputations, complex musculoskeletal problems, neuromuscular problems and strokes. The other term for a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist is physiatrist. One of Dr. Doherty’s leadership roles is to help improve the quality and safety of the care provided to rehabilitation patients to ensure they achieve the best outcomes.

Dr. Doherty is also a scientist at Lawson Health Research Institute. His main research focus is neuromuscular function and he and his group are particularly focused on what happens to nerves and muscles as people age and how those changes impact function and mobility. He is working with a team using sensitive measurement of muscle strength and power, Electromyography (EMG) technology and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to measure these changes. Together, his team is trying to understand and discover ways to maintain muscle mass and strength as people get older to improve their mobility quality of life.   

A typical day

Most of Dr. Doherty’s clinical work is focused on the care of patients in the Stroke Rehabilitation Program at Parkwood Institute. He also works as a physiatrist within Neuromuscular and EMG clinics at London Health Sciences Centre.

Personal touch

The personal touch Dr. Doherty brings to his work is something that is fundamental to the work of a physiatrist - keeping the needs of each individual patient at the centre of everything he does. He finds this an easy task, because physiatry as a specialty is really focused on treating the whole person.

Physiatrists have specialized training in more than one area of medicine. While other physicians specialize in a specific disease, condition or area of the body, physiatrists have training in many areas such as neurological, musculoskeletal and rheumatologic diseases, and biomechanics. With this vast knowledge, they can treat complex patient problems in a holistic way.

Physiatrists focus on improving function rather than just treating disease. Instead of treating one area of the body, they work with patients and their family caregivers as partners to determine their goals. These goals could include getting back to work or participating in recreation activities. Their main focus is getting patients back to living a full life.


“What inspires me the most about my job is seeing patients progress in their rehabilitation. When patients first come to us for care, they are often very dependent on staff and their family caregivers for everything – even simple activities that we take for granted such as getting dressed, eating and walking. Three to four weeks into their treatment and rehabilitation many of them are up walking with a cane or walker, and doing daily activities on their own or with minimal assistance. We as a team, not just the physiatrists, but the whole team of health care providers work together to make that happen.”

Just for fun

In his spare time, Dr. Doherty enjoys spending time with his wife dining out and watching movies. An avid cyclist, he travels thousands of kilometers, almost 8,000 each year.

Inspiration at work

“Helping people recover or maintain function after an injury or stroke, or in the face of a progressive disease can be very rewarding,” says Dr. Doherty. “One patient that really stands out for me is a young patient who is living with muscular dystrophy. Through a lot of courage and determination on the part of the patient, and with support from our team. community health care providers, and friends, he manages to continue to live independently and work in his profession and really live a full life. It’s inspirational to see him still be socially active, working and contributing to society.”

The importance of partnering with family caregivers

Part of individualizing care for each patient is understanding what support they have from family caregivers. Dr. Doherty believes partnering with family caregivers is crucial to his patients care and recovery. “Our patients often have significant injuries or illness. Their family caregivers play an important role in supporting them in hospital and when they go home. We have to consider what skills the family caregivers have or need, and if they have an illness that will limit their ability to support the patient. It’s also important to know how resilient they are in being able to deal with the effects of the patient’s illness or injury.

We try to help our patients and their family caregivers focus on the here and now. People tend to want to predict or know what life will be like in 6 months or a year. It not often useful to try to make predictions, because patients surprise us all the time and often their outcomes are better than we thought they might be. We try to refocus them, to understand what the patient can do today and what new skills they need to learn. That is a process, and doesn’t happen overnight, but we try to focus on the ability, not the disability. While it’s not easy, it is a way to start to move forward.” 

Looking to the future

When thinking about the future of physiatry, Dr. Doherty feels they will be more in demand as a profession. “We have unique skills that will be needed to help support our aging population, and the increase in the number of people in our community with chronic disease. People are also increasingly more interested in maintaining a high quality of life and maximizing their function as they age and will be looking for interventions and care providers like physiatrists to help them.”

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