Four Tips in Navigating the Canadian Medical System

Navigating the health care system can be challenging – asking the right people for help will be crucial.

I moved to Canada in 2001 as a child.  My parents came from Shanghai and immigrated here without fluent English-speaking skills.  Early on we realized there were a few differences between the Chinese health care system and the Canadian one.  Specifically, whereas in China we could see any specialist we would like without prior referral, Canada is different.  Having a universal health care system is also a difference between the two.  In China, private payers and insurance companies covered health care costs.

Fast forward to today, I work in health care and have come to understand intricately how the system works.  Navigating through the system seems straight forward.  However, this was not the case for me 20 years ago.  What are some important differentiators in our health care system (in a very brief listicle) and pointers in how to navigate our system smoothly.  For AU students whom English may not be the first language, this is a good read for you.

  • One of the things I’m thankful for is our accessible and universal health care. For example, having a short hospital stay overnight without having to worry about paying the bills makes a huge difference in someone’s life.

    Universal health care coverage

Health care coverage is universal in Canada.  However, many people do not know that drugs are not covered.  Medications are an out-of-pocket expense (unless covered by private insurance, whether personal or from your employment).  This goes as well for dental, optometry and other naturopathic/homeopathic services.


  • Specialist vs generalist

For some this is a frustrating factor to understand.  Even if you know that you need to visit a specialist, your first point of access to care is through a general practitioner (for example family doctor or walk-in clinic).  Generalists help diagnose and triage problems that could be addressed right away versus a problem that require further investigation by a specialist.  Prior to a referral, bloodwork or imaging may be required.

  • Language barriers

For many navigating our health care system where English is not the first language, there is assistance available.  Having worked in a hospital in Calgary, I’ve found the integration of care with online translators to be very useful.  When I had my own patient who immigrated from Syria, there was a translator available through a Zoom call who would translate Arabic to English and vice versa.  Other clinics and settings might have language specific help available.  For example, living near Chinatown, there are many clinics with bilingual doctors, nurses, and other health care providers available.

  • How is health care information stored

This is another differentiating factor between other countries and Canada.  While electronic medical records are becoming more prevalent, many health care settings still operate in silos.  For example, the information from the pharmacy does not link with the information from the hospital and does not link with the information at the family doctor’s clinic.  In Alberta, this is changing as with healthcare technology that offers a secure platform for the different health providers to record info that can be seen by other providers.  Your health care information is available to you and is a right.  While some dentist and doctor’s offices will charge a fee for this information, you may actually refuse to pay.  Access to this information, legally, should be free.

When I interned at the hospital, I had to learn how information was stored on the hospital’s health records system.