Health care in Canada: Access our universal health care system

Canada has a universal health care system funded through taxes. This means that any Canadian citizen or permanent resident can apply for public health insurance.

Each province and territory has a different health plan that covers different services and products. There are some important differences between each plan so make sure you know what your plan covers.

Once your province or territory adds you to their health system, you’ll get a health card. Show this card at hospitals or medical clinics to get non-emergency services.

In general, with public health insurance you won’t have to pay for

  • most health care services
  • emergency medical services, even if you don’t have a health card (there may be some restrictions depending on your immigration status)

If you have an emergency, go to the nearest hospital. A walk-in clinic might charge fees if you don’t live in that province or territory.

Whether you get coverage from public or private health insurance, all doctors in Canada provide health services in a confidential manner. This means that your doctor can’t discuss your health information with someone else without your permission.

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Accessing public health insurance

To access health care in Canada, you need to apply for a health card from your province or territory. When you go to see a doctor or other medical professional, you have to show your health card to prove that you’re registered.

Prepare for the waiting period before you’re covered

In some provinces, you may be waiting up to 3 months for your public health insurance to start. Make sure you have private health insurance to cover your health care needs during this waiting period.

Contact your ministry of health to find out how long it will take to get public health insurance.

Using a family doctor

Many Canadians have a family doctor they go to when they need medical care. Family doctors provide basic health, including

Your family doctor may do tests like

  • blood tests
  • blood pressure checks
  • pap smears

Your doctor will also send you to see a specialist if you need to see one.

While not all Canadians have a family doctor, many prefer having one because

  • they can visit the same doctor for every appointment
  • they can schedule appointments in advance to avoid waiting in line

Making an appointment with a family doctor

With a family doctor, you can make appointments any time you need non-urgent care. If more than one family member needs to see a doctor, you‘ll make a separate appointment for each person.

It’s important to tell your doctor about any medicine you may be taking. This includes

  • prescription medication prescribed by another doctor
  • over-the-counter medicines, like pain or allergy medicine

Get help finding a doctor

Getting medication

When you’re in a Canadian hospital, your doctor will provide the medication you need for free.

Medications that you get at a pharmacy are not free. In many cases, public health insurance won’t cover medication, so you may have to pay for it yourself. You also may be eligible for coverage through another insurance or drug program.

If you need medication for a minor illness or injury

If you need medication for minor illnesses or injuries that aren’t urgent or life threatening, you can go to a pharmacy to speak with a pharmacist. A pharmacist can help you with

  • colds
  • headaches
  • minor cuts or burns

While pharmacists can’t give you prescription medication without a note from a doctor, they can recommend over-the-counter medication to help you.

You must pay for over-the-counter medication yourself.

If you need prescription medication

To get medication for more serious conditions and ailments, you need a note from a doctor. The note is called a “prescription.” You’ll show the note to your pharmacist when requesting the medication.

In most cases, public health insurance won’t cover prescription medication. Many Canadians have other insurance coverage that pays for part of the cost of their prescriptions.

This coverage can come from

  • provincial and territorial medication programs (you need to be eligible for these programs)
  • employers that have private insurance plans for their employees

Contact your employer or your provincial or territorial ministry of health to learn about your coverage options.

Maintaining your dental health

In Canada, our public health insurance doesn’t cover the cost of most dental services. To know what’s covered, check with

  • your public health authority
  • your private health care provider

Your oral health is an important part of your general well-being. Dentists can help you maintain healthy teeth and gums, treat gum disease and other problems, and understand how to improve your oral care at home.

Following the medical surveillance process

If you have a significant medical condition (for example, a history of tuberculosis), we’ll send you a “Medical Surveillance Notice” form. This form tells you that your local health authority will contact you about your condition. They’ll make sure you’re registered in the health system and that your health and condition are monitored. This process protects you, your family and the public by making sure

  • you’re registered with your local health care system
  • your health is monitored by the right health care professionals
  • that you’re getting the care you need for your condition

The medical surveillance form we send you will have instructions to follow.

If you don’t follow the medical surveillance process, it may impact future applications, like for visas or citizenship.

Your local health authority will tell us when you’ve successfully followed the process so we can update your medical surveillance status. We’ll tell you when we update your status.

Provincial and territorial ministries of health

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