Going to the Doctor Abroad: Canada

by Gigi Griffis

Welcome to my Going to the Doctor Abroad series—a series of interviews with expats living abroad about how healthcare differs in their adopted country. The experiences below belong to the interviewees and may not be representative of every person’s experience. Love it? Hate it? Find it useful? Let me know.

Today I’m happy to bring you Kissha Saint, an American living in Canada who has kindly shared her experiences with its healthcare system.

First, tell us about you.

Well, in a nutshell I grew up in Kentucky and my father had polycystic kidney disease, so I was exposed to healthcare most of my life. My dad once said “a nurse can make or break your day” and that is why I became a nurse. I moved to Florida at the age of 19 and eventually met my (Canadian) husband who was living there as well. I finished my degree in nursing and eventually we wound up in Calgary, Alberta.

Talk to us about average run-of-the-mill doctor visits. How do they work in Canada? How are they different from the US?

Well, I often hear people complain about it taking a week or more to get in to their family doctors here and some people (especially when Calgary was experiencing a big population boom) have a hard time finding a family doctor. My doctor is part of a model that was a pilot study for Alberta health services, and the way I understand it, they are given an allotment of money per patient for the year and they are expected to see you in a reasonable time frame to avoid patients going to urgent care or emergency departments for minor issues. They almost always have seen me or my daughters the day of my call or the next day. I wouldn’t say they are much different than seeing a family doctor in the US other than when I am done I walk out the door and my credit card gets to stay tucked in my wallet.

Let’s talk about specialists. How do you get in to see a specialist if you need to?

You do need a referral from your family doctor to see a specialist here. Another difference I found interesting here is that pediatricians are considered specialists here in Calgary, so you require a referral; in the US, you would normally have your child under the care of a pediatrician.

Let’s talk about pharmacies and prescriptions. Are they any different from the US?

They are pretty much the same, except I would say prescription prices here are more reasonable.

In an emergency situation, what is the protocol in Canada?

You call an ambulance (911) or drive yourself to the emergency department.

How is a hospital visit different than in the US?

They are fairly similar. Here there are rooms with up to four patients in the same room and I have never seen more than two in the U.S. Here they will even have mixed genders in the same room and I can’t recall ever seeing that in the U. S. either.

Again, in Canada you have your hospital stay without a worry about paying, but in the U.S. my patients were often worried about the mounting bill they would be faced with once they were discharged.

What about homeopathic practitioners, acupuncture, and other non-medical treatment options?

I have never used one personally, so honestly I have no idea! I do know that you pay for those options privately, though if you have employer-provided benefits, it may cover some of the cost.

What about health insurance? What’s the cost? Does health insurance cover everything or is it a co-pay system? If so, how much are you generally paying for things?

In Canada you don’t pay for any health coverage, except prescription coverage and dental insurance.

I know often times people wait until they are extremely ill in the U.S. to seek help because their insurance coverage isn’t that great, so a trip to the doctor would be too expensive. My sister had to take her son to emergency because he was suffering from dehydration due to a stomach virus and her health insurance denied the claim, because they deemed it a “pre-existing” condition. She fought and fought with them until they did finally cover the bill. Here in Canada, you would never worry about whether you will be presented with an insanely large medical bill because your insurance denied the claim; it is always covered. When I first moved to Canada, I was not yet covered under my province’s health coverage and I had to go to a walk-in clinic to be seen and given a prescription for antibiotics for a bladder infection; I think it cost me around $30-40. The next week we were on vacation in Washington State and the bladder infection returned. I was seen in a walk-in clinic there by a nurse practitioner and given another prescription and I was charged $125. That is insane!

Overall health insurance is government-provided, so you don’t have health insurance here per say. Prescription coverage and many of those benefits (which are additional) will have things like a health spending account of maybe a $1,000 a year to spend on things like massage, gym memberships, and other health-related items. I think I pay somewhere around $50 a month (and then whatever my employer pays) for mine.

What about the cost of pharmaceuticals? How does it compare to the US?

I have been here almost a decade and I am young, so my experience with prescriptions are limited. But there are lists that can show you the cost comparisons.

Anything else people should know about doing to the doctor in Canada?

I am fortunate to live in bigger city, so my access to healthcare and specialists has never been difficult. I have had same day ultrasounds (twice) after finding lumps in my breast, both of which were benign and my husband was in for a colonoscopy within a couple of weeks when he was having some scary symptoms. I would say things like pain and orthopedic procedures take longer to be seen. Anything that is a potentially life threatening is always handled swiftly, in my experience. I love the Canadian healthcare system and have nothing but good things to say about it. It is great to have state-of-the-art care and not have to worry about being in financial ruin once you leave the hospital.

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Bobbi T October 25, 2016 - 9:45 pm

I don’t think this one person’s opinion is very representative of what it is really like, heard about it one whole winter from probably about 50+ Canadians – ALL who beg to differ with this, just saying might want to interview a larger cross section and perhaps someone who is NOT in the medical field as they would tend to be bias.

gigigriffis October 26, 2016 - 9:55 am

It isn’t really meant to be a comprehensive look at healthcare – just give people an idea of how it works. Do they need a referral to see a specialist, for example? How do doctor visits works? What does it cost? How does insurance work? All that. While she does give her opinions of the care there, the opinions are less the point than the facts about how it works for those considering becoming expats. :)


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