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International Students’ Guide to Health Care in Canada


Canada’s universal health care system tends to be confusing for newcomers. In fact, international students often get confused by costly medical expenses, complicated provincial health insurance plans, hospitals’ operation, emergency rooms, etc. Nevertheless, once you know the basics of Canada’s health care you will be able to recognize what to do when in need of health services. Learn more about all aspects of health care in Canada below.

Health Insurance

Health services in Canada can be quite costly especially when you are not under any coverage. For instance, a doctor’s visit could cost $100+ depending on the reason for the visit. However, you will be able to avoid paying for basic health and medical service with proper health insurance. Although you may still have to pay for certain parts of health services if they are not a part of your insurance. Each province and territory has its own health insurance plan so medical insurance available to International students varies from province to province. In provinces where international students are not covered by provincial health care plans, students must arrange for private health insurance coverage. For a more comprehensive guide on health insurance visit “Health Insurance in Canada – Get the Right Coverage”.

Family Doctor

Typically, a family doctor is the first place you go to when you have any medical concern. They are also known as your general practitioner. A family doctor can then refer you to a specialist if needed. This is important because you will need a referral from a family doctor when you need to see a specialist. Otherwise, your visit won’t be covered by your health insurance.

To find one, there are a number of ways. One is to try asking your friends if their doctor is accepting any new patients. Your province may also provide a service of connecting you with a doctor. Another way is to ask your local hospital or clinic if they have a family doctor that is accepting new patients.

Below are links that may also help you in your search, depending on where you are in Canada.

Walk-in Clinics

For those who can’t reach or don’t have a family doctor, walk-in clinics are the primary medical care. You are able to get assistance from a nurse or doctor, often without having to book an appointment in advance. The primary services of walk-in clinics include, diagnosis and treatment of minor illnesses and injuries, prescribing medication, and referrals. Thus you should visit these clinics when you are in a non-urgent situation or need care for minor health problems such as bruises, strains, cuts, infections, etc. Last but not least, make sure to bring your health card with you to the clinic but you may get charged a fee if you don’t have one or don’t live in that province/territory.

Urgent Care Centers

Urgent care centers are an alternative to walk-in clinics that treat unexpected, but non-life threatening health concerns requiring same-day treatment. Thus, they provide health services for more serious but not emergency-level health concerns. For instance, some common conditions treated by urgent care centers include broken bones, asthma, dehydration, infections, etc. Typically urgent centers consist of nurses, nurse practitioners and physicians. Your health insurance often covers urgent care center costs (depending on the insurance provider) but patients have to pay a co-payment or deductible.


Canada has several types of hospitals, including the general public and special public hospitals both of which are under provincial jurisdiction. Moreover, there are 45 private hospitals and the federal government operates 1. The special hospitals refer to rehabilitation hospitals, cancer centres and chronic care facilities. And private hospitals include cosmetic surgery facilities and vision centres. Hospitals treat more serious medical and health needs including emergency situations. Health insurance covers certain hospital charges depending on your purpose of visit. For instance, regular visits are covered by the insurance, however, hospital transfers (ambulance), long-term care facilities and prescriptions will cost you extra.

Emergency Situations

If you are in need of immediate medical assistance you have one of the two following options:

Emergency Rooms (ER)

Emergency rooms provide treatment of severe illnesses and injuries 24 hours a day. Thus the staff and physicians are trained to handle serious situations. ERs grant priority depending on the severity of your condition. Thus your wait time to see a doctor may take as little as few minutes to 4+ hours. Moreover, ER visits are free for those with a health insurance plan however they tend to be expensive for those that don’t. As a result, an ER visit can cost an average of $1000 in Canada emphasizing the importance of health insurance.

Calling 911

If you or someone you know are in an emergency situation and need immediate help call 911. But keep in mind that calling 911 is only for police, fire or medical emergencies that require immediate action. The call-taker will confirm your municipality and whether you need an ambulance, fire or police. And once your emergency needs are clear, the call-taker will transfer you to the appropriate agency. The help will be on their way once you have given them the necessary information.

Canada’s health care is not the easiest to get around. Yet once you know the basics of health insurance, hospitals, clinics and emergency resources you will be able to know where to go and what to expect when in need of medical help. For more information on Canada’s health care system and its history visit the Government of Canada’s official guide.

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