June 25, 2024

Understanding Healthcare in Canada for Newcomers:

How to Access Health Services, Register for Health Insurance, and What to Do in an Emergency.

For newcomers to Canada, knowing how to access health services when they need them can be confusing. Below is a comprehensive guide to help.

Accessing Healthcare Services

Primary Care Providers

Most Canadians receive their routine healthcare from primary care providers, typically family doctors or general practitioners (GPs).

When you first come to Canada, it’s recommended that you find a family doctor who can provide ongoing care. Each province has a directory or a registry where you can find doctors accepting new patients, or you can search online. In Ontario, the Health Care Connect service; other provinces have similar aids.

If you do not have a family doctor or need immediate care for non-emergency situations, walk-in clinics are an option. These clinics do not require appointments and are widely available. Community health centres offer a range of services including primary care, health promotion, and community services. 

Access to specialist care, such as seeing a cardiologist or dermatologist, usually requires a referral from a family doctor. This referral system helps ensure that patients receive the appropriate level of care and that specialist resources are used effectively.

Hospitals provide a range of services including emergency care, surgeries, and specialized treatments. For non-urgent care, hospitals often require referrals from a primary care provider.

Registering for Health Insurance

Healthcare in Canada, known as Medicare, is publicly funded, financed through taxes and delivered by the provincial and territorial governments. Each province and territory administers its own health insurance plan, and residents must register to receive a health card, which grants access to medically necessary services. 

Most permanent residents, temporary workers, and refugees are eligible for provincial health insurance. You can apply for your province or territory’s card online at:

You will need documents proving your identity, residency, and immigration status. Common documents include your passport, work or study permit, and proof of address, such as a utility bill or rental agreement.

Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP)

For refugee claimants and certain protected persons, the IFHP provides temporary healthcare coverage until they qualify for provincial or territorial health insurance. This program covers basic and supplemental healthcare services.


Emergencies and Urgent Care

Emergency Room (ER)

Emergencies require immediate medical attention. Emergency rooms (ERs) are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and are equipped to handle serious medical conditions such as:

  • Severe chest pain or difficulty breathing.
  • Uncontrolled bleeding or major trauma.
  • Sudden loss of consciousness.
  • Signs of a stroke (e.g., sudden weakness, difficulty speaking).

If you experience any of these symptoms, go to the nearest hospital ER or call 9-1-1. In life-threatening situations, dialling 9-1-1 connects you to emergency services, including ambulances, police, and fire services. 

Urgent Care Clinics

For conditions that require prompt attention but are not life-threatening, such as minor fractures or severe flu symptoms, urgent care clinics are a good alternative to ERs. These clinics often have shorter wait times and don’t require referrals.

Mental Health Crises

If you or someone else is experiencing a mental health crisis, such as suicidal thoughts or severe anxiety, there are crisis lines available in each province. Additionally, most hospitals have psychiatric emergency services.


Pharmacies play a crucial role in the healthcare system by dispensing medications and providing health advice. Some pharmacists can prescribe medications for certain common conditions.

Health Insurance for Medications and Extended Benefits

While provincial health plans cover most essential healthcare services, they often do not cover prescription medications, dental care, vision care, and other extended health benefits.

Private Health Insurance

Many Canadians supplement their provincial health coverage with private health insurance. This can be purchased individually or provided through employment benefits. Private insurance helps cover the cost of medications, dental and vision care, and other services not included in provincial plans.

Provincial Drug Benefit Programs

Most provinces offer drug benefit programs for seniors, children, and individuals with low incomes. 

hospital waiting room and waiting

Other Considerations for Newcomers

If you’re concerned about language barriers, healthcare services often provide translation and interpretation services that you can ask about. Healthcare providers in Canada are also trained to respect and accommodate diverse cultural backgrounds. If you have specific cultural or religious considerations, let your healthcare provider know.

Preventive Care

Canada places a strong emphasis on preventive care, including vaccinations, screenings, and regular check-ups. Staying proactive about your health can prevent future complications and is a key component of the Canadian healthcare philosophy.

Community Resources

Many communities have newcomer support services that can help you, including settlement agencies, community health centers, and cultural organizations. Below are just some of the options.

Toronto Area and Ontario

  • TAIBU Community Health Centre helps marginalized groups, including newcomers and uninsured individuals, by providing culturally appropriate healthcare and support.
  • Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre provides primary health care, harm reduction services, mental health support, and community programs to low-income and marginalized populations, including newcomers and those without health insurance.
  • Welcome Centre Immigrant Services in Ontario helps newcomers integrate into Canadian society and navigate healthcare.
  • Health for All Family Health Team offers healthcare services to marginalized populations, including newcomers and uninsured individuals, including primary care, chronic disease management, and mental health services.


  • MOSAIC Primary Care Network provides a variety of health services for culturally diverse populations, including newcomers and refugees, such as primary healthcare, chronic disease management, mental health support, and community health programs.
  • Community Health Centres across Canada offer primary care and health promotion services and cater to vulnerable populations including immigrants, refugees, and those without insurance.
  • Refugee Health Vancouver Clinic provides comprehensive healthcare services to newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers, including primary healthcare, mental health services, and specialized support for refugees.
  • In Winnipeg, BridgeCare Clinic provides primary care, health assessments, and connections to community resources to newly arrived refugees and immigrants, including those who might be uninsured.
  • COSTI Immigrant Services is a community-based multicultural agency that provides support in accessing healthcare and other essential services to immigrants, refugees, and other newcomers. 
  • VAST in Vancouver offers mental health counselling, group therapy, and support to refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants who have experienced torture or violence.

At Oro Immigration, we understand that coming to Canada can be overwhelming and confusing, as well as exciting. Not only do we help people succeed in their goals to visit, study, work, and live in Canada, guiding them through the appropriate channels, but we aim to make the journey easier for them along the way.


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