What Immigrants Need to Know About Canada’s Healthcare System

Canada’s Healthcare System is a polarizing subject. Some people are impressed by it while some are frustrated because of it. I am sometimes grateful and sometimes stressed because of it. Today we will know why. 

We will look at:

  • Frequently mentioned pros and cons of Canada’s Healthcare system
  • Healthcare system indicators in Canada
  • Some of my first-hand experiences as well as stories from people that I personally know.

Hopefully, this post will help new and potential immigrants manage their expectations and prepare for undesirable scenarios.

Canada's Healthcare System Allows Its People to Live a High-Quality Life
Canada’s Healthcare System Allows Its People to Live a High-Quality Life

Pros and Cons of Canada’s Healthcare System

Advantages and Disadvantages of Canada's Healthcare System
Advantages and Disadvantages of Canada’s Healthcare System
Universal Healthcare

Everyone who meets minimum residency requirements in Canada is eligible for healthcare coverage. Universal healthcare provides medically necessary healthcare services based on the values of fairness and equity. That is, they grant services based on need rather than the ability to pay. However, each province or territory has a different health plan with different insurance coverage.

Effective Educational Programs

The government creates educational programs to help people prevent diseases and injuries. 

Canada’s official website has lots of information on a wide range of topics such as child health, healthy pregnancy, mental health, obesity, and physical activity.

Provinces and territories also develop educational programs for disease and injury prevention. For example, the official website of British Columbia has valuable information to help seniors deal with aging, dementia, arthritis, diabetes, fall hazards, and others.

The government uses various media channels to enhance awareness of health and safety topics. For instance, they have shared reminders to get Covid-19 shots on TV and social media since the start of the pandemic.


Insured persons are covered when they move to another province or territory. 

Coverage is also available for insured individuals when they travel abroad. However, coverage may be limited or may require prior approval for non-emergency services outside the province’s or territory’s jurisdiction.

A Medical Clinic
A Medical Clinic in British Columbia
Long Wait Times

Tests, treatments, and specialist visits are assessed and scheduled on a priority basis. Patients with life-threatening conditions and urgent needs, as well as senior citizens, are on top of the priority list. This means that other patients who are suffering from non-life-threatening discomfort have to wait. It may also mean that diagnosis may not be done in a timely manner especially if symptoms or risks are not obvious.

Limited coverage

In general, public health insurance in Canada does not cover dental care, vision care, and prescription drugs.

Insufficient Coverage for Rural Areas

Canada’s healthcare system is publicly funded. The healthcare budget is distributed based on provincial demographics. Thus, the budget allocation for urban areas is bigger compared to rural areas. This results in a shortage of doctors and specialists as well as slower healthcare facilities improvement in rural areas.

Prescription Drugs are Not Covered by Canada's Healthcare System Benefits
Prescription Drugs are Not Covered by Canada’s Healthcare System Benefits

Comparison Between the Healthcare Systems in Canada and Other Countries

Most, if not all, immigrants move to another country to experience a better quality of life. This includes access to a better healthcare system.

Let’s look at some facts.


The table that follows indicates the number of healthcare workers per 10, 000 people. Compared to the top countries of origin of Canadian immigrants, Canada has more healthcare workers per 10, 000 people. However, the same conclusion can not be given when Canada is compared with the UK or USA.

Health Workforce According to World Health Statistics
Health Workforce According to World Health Statistics
Wait Times

Wait times during emergencies and to get treatment from specialists are quite long.

On September 14, 2022, Global News reported that the average wait time from admission in an emergency room to a bed at Ontario hospitals ballooned to an average of 20.7 compared to the target of 8 hours. On November 6, 2022, Winnipeg Regional Health Authority recorded the shortest wait time between being registered and seeing a physician or medical practitioner of 5.25 hours in the Emergency Department of the Health Sciences Centre – Children’s.

The picture painted by Fraser Institute’s 2021 Waiting Your Turn Report is as bleak. According to specialist physicians surveyed, the median waiting time between referral from a general practitioner and actual treatment is 25.6 weeks. Wait times varied widely across provinces. Ontario reported the shortest total wait time of 18.5 weeks while Nova Scotia indicated 53.2 weeks. The report also noted huge variations among specialties. Wait times for neurosurgical procedures were 49.2 weeks, while radiation treatments required 3.7 weeks of waiting.

In 2016, a Commonwealth Fund International Health Policy Survey was conducted with 11 OECD countries. Results showed that people who reported not getting an answer from their doctor’s office on the same day was low in Switzerland (12%), Germany (13%), and the Netherlands (13%), but higher in Canada (33%) and the United States (28%). However, Canada fared better in 2018 studies of median waiting times for more urgent treatments compared to the OECD average:

Median Waiting Times for Selected Elective Surgery (Days) in 2018 According to OECD


To give a better idea of how the healthcare system works, here are some real stories from people I know.

A forklift operator had a workplace incident. He then went to the hospital because his head was bleeding from the injury. He waited for four to five hours because his case was considered non-life-threatening. Yes, he waited while his head was bleeding.

A happy baby was brought to the hospital because he wasn’t feeling well. But because he looked happy, the baby and parents waited for four hours.

A patient was diagnosed with cancer. The government covered her medications which amounted to $400 per day.  She has since recovered and is living a good life.

Another patient who was diagnosed with cancer got a call scheduling her for treatment even before she got home from her doctor’s visit.

Personal Accounts

I went to a walk-in clinic and was second in line. A staff member told me to wait for 30 – 45 minutes. However, I ended up waiting for an hour and 15 minutes because people with appointments kept bumping me off. Patients, including children, who arrived more than an hour after opening hours were turned away because the clinic can no longer accommodate more patients for the day. 

The Covid-19 vaccine scheduling system in BC is excellent. (I am sure that it’s similar in other provinces or territories.) People can set up appointments online or by phone. Translators are available and there is support for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired. I got a reminder from an automated system for my Saturday appointment the day before. I cleared my schedule and arrived at the clinic early. While checking my identification, the pharmacist said, “We got a note that the vaccine shipment did not arrive. Just go to the website to book another appointment.” If there is an automated system to send reminders, you would think that they can use this same system to notify people of cancellations. It is a minor inconvenience for me but is a big inconvenience for people with disabilities or other challenges.

Canada’s Healthcare System is a Polarizing Subject

Final Thoughts

Canada’s Healthcare System has its advantages and disadvantages. Thus, people have widely varied opinions about it.

Personally, I think that Canada’s Healthcare System works well for minor ailments as well as emergencies and life-threatening conditions. However, the system doesn’t work as smoothly for major discomforts that are not categorized as an emergency or life-threatening. It does not help with the early detection of some diseases due to the long wait for visits to specialists.

Like some immigrants, I wouldn’t wait if I have the resources. I would fly back home to get immediate treatment for a major discomfort in a decent private hospital. Other than that, I would take advantage of the benefits of the system.

Canada’s Healthcare System is indeed a polarizing topic. In the end, it’s a matter of perspective.

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