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Understanding the Healthcare System in Canada: A Guide for Newcomers


Published July 12, 2023 • 4 Min Read

Canada offers a strong healthcare system for its citizens and permanent residents, and in this guide, you’ll learn how it works, what’s available, and how to access what you need to keep yourself and your family healthy.

Universal healthcare

All citizens and permanent residents in Canada have free access to medically necessary services through a doctor or hospital.

Taxes fund this system, called Medicare, and while it’s often referred to as “universal healthcare,” there’s not actually one single national health insurance plan. Instead, the federal government sets standards and contributes to funding while your home province or territory administers the program.

If you live in Ontario, for example, you’ll receive coverage under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP), but for British Columbians, the program is Medical Services Plan (MSP). As the provinces and territories regulate differently, healthcare plans differ across regions.

Note: While your regional healthcare plan covers you across Canada, you’ll need extra insurance if you travel outside the country.

When you arrive

Although you’re eligible to receive healthcare as a permanent resident or a Canadian citizen, you have to register with your provincial plan. Do this as soon as possible as there can be a wait time.

Get step-by-step information on how to apply for your health plan.

When your application is approved, you’ll receive a health card (called a Care Card) to show at the doctor’s or hospital.

What’s covered and what’s not?

Under your provincial or territorial plan, you can get treatment at the doctor, clinic, or hospital without paying for the visit. Emergency dental treatments that take place in the hospital are also included. This means your general healthcare requirements, like check-ups, lab tests, and treatments at the doctor’s office or hospital, are covered as long as they’re medically necessary.

However, there are limits:

  • Prescription drugs are not included. If you go to the doctor with back pain for example, and the doctor gives you a prescription, you’ll have to pay for the medication. However, the visit to the doctor, including the exam, x-rays, and any lab work, is covered.

  • Specialist services, like optometrists, osteopaths, chiropractors, and physiotherapists are generally not included. You’ll likely have to pay those costs if you see a massage therapist for pain relief or a physiotherapist to prevent further injury.

  • Medical equipment may or may not be covered, depending on your plan. You may have to pay for crutches, wheelchairs, braces, and orthotics.

  • Eyeglasses, hearing aids and dental care are also not covered. However, the federal government is in the process of launching the Canadian Dental Care Plan, which will provide coverage for low- and middle-income Canadians.

  • Mental health services that are delivered through hospitals or specific initiatives such as addiction programs are covered, but psychotherapy and counselling aren’t.

Should I get health insurance?

Your regional healthcare plan may be sufficient for primary care and emergencies. If you want full coverage, you’ll need additional insurance. There are plans for individuals and families that cover some or all of your healthcare needs, including prescriptions, specialists, mental health care, and supplies.

Getting a family doctor

In Canada, people generally have a primary care provider (PCP), such as a family doctor or a nurse practitioner, who are your first point of contact. This PCP knows your medical history and can offer continuity, so it’s advisable to find yours as soon as possible.

Ask friends or family for the name of their PCP, or research online to see what PCPs are taking new patients. Some regions have wait lists, so you should start the process as soon as possible.

If you’re on a waitlist, you may still receive medical help:

  • Telehealth is a free and confidential telephone service for non-emergency issues

  • There are also walk-in clinics, which are places to receive medical care without an appointment

  • For a serious injury or urgent health issues, visit your local hospital’s emergency room

The Canadian healthcare system is one of the most comprehensive in the world, and when you follow the tips in this guide, you can help ensure you and your family have access to the care you need.

This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.

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