Canadian Healthcare: “Free” but Certainly Not Consistent

Canada Map

When you travel as much as I do, it is pretty much inevitable that at some point, you will succumb to illness.  Regardless of how much effort I put into eating healthy, working out, washing or sanitizing my hands at every opportunity I get while I’m on the road, I occasionally get sick and require medical treatment.

Since my territory is the entire country of Canada, I often get sick while away from home and therefore am unable to see my family doctor.  Over the years, I have noticed a significant variance in the healthcare treatment we have in Canada, in particular the difference between provinces.

For my American readers, in Canada we have provinces (not providences) which are equivalent to individual states.  Most of you are aware that in Canada,  our healthcare is “free” and covered by our government.  I say “free” in quotations because we do pay for it in the form of taxes which are automatically deducted from our income.  The most common misconception about our healthcare system here in Canada is that all Canadians have full and equal access to all healthcare professionals.  In my travels, I have discovered that this is clearly not the case.

Fortunately, I have not required medical treatment in all of the provinces, however I would like share a combination of my personal experiences and those of my associates in this post to illustrate the gross inequality of our healthcare system.

Below I have ranked the provinces in terms of the quality of healthcare they provide and the average wait times for a “walk-in” to see a doctor.  Note that I have only listed provinces for which I have had direct experience in or have heard feedback on.  I cannot comment on the others.

Best: BRITISH COLUMBIA “We sincerely apologize for the wait.”

Approximate wait time to see a doctor: <1 hour

To date, I have sought treatment in this province 4 times and I have never spent more than 1 hour in total from checking in to walking out with a prescription as a walk-in from out of province.  Two times I had eye infections and the others I was sick and required antibiotics.  Every time, yes 4/4 times, the nurse or receptionist apologized to me saying “We are so sorry that you have to wait to see a doctor! I promise it won’t be much longer.” This is unheard of in my home province of Ontario.

NEW BRUNSWICK “Well come on in and I’ll wrangle up a doctor for ya!”

Approximate wait time to see a doctor: <1h hour

This province is one of the most sparsely populated provinces in Canada which might explain the exceptional treatment that I have seen.  My friend had completely severed his biceps tendon while trying to push a car out of the snow.  We walked into the hospital emergency department, spoke with a triage nurse in less than 15 minutes, were in to see a general physician within 30 minutes and an orthopedic surgeon within an hour.  If I recall correctly, I think the triage nurse said something to the effect that “Relax, take a seat and I’ll wrangle up a doctor for ya!  I think you’ll end up seeing Dr. Y. who is here today and he did a great job on me and lots of my coworkers.” Maritimers are an exceptionally friendly bunch.  At the 2 hour point, my friend was having an MRI and he was out the door with a sling and a promise for a call back with the results by the day’s end.  By the end of the day, he had a surgery date scheduled for less than two weeks later.  This is completely unheard of anywhere else in Canada.

ONTARIO “Know where to go for appropriate care or wait and rot.”

Approximate wait time to see a doctor: 2-4 hours

Ontario is the most populated province in Canada..  In order to receive the appropriate care, you must know where to go.  We have a service called TeleHealth Ontario which is a toll free number that anyone can call and speak to a nurse and they will advise you as to whether or not you should see your family doctor,  go to a walk-in clinic, the emergency department or to call 911.  Generally speaking, Ontario is quite good for healthcare if you go to the appropriate place for your particular ailment.  If you have a legitimate emergency and go to the hospital, you will be seen immediately and receive excellent care.  If you have a non-urgent condition, you can expect to wait approximately 2-6 hours (depending on the condition) to receive treatment.  You may have to wait but, you will receive excellent medical care.  Going back to my friends’ experience with getting an MRI in New Brunswick; I was particularly impressed with the speediness of his diagnostics because when I had a bad concussion and was experiencing olfactory hallucinations (smelling things that are not there), I saw my family doctor and had to wait 8 months for a CT scan.  I thought that was completely unacceptable.  Needless to say, by then my brain had healed, or at least I’d like to think so.

SASKATCHEWAN “You’re close enough to a nurse.”

Approximate wait time to see a doctor: 3-6 hours, or maybe never!

Fortunately, I have never required medical treatment in this province.  Although I do not have any direct experience here, one of my clients told me this story.  She had to take her mother into the hospital for an impacted colon.  Her mother had a history of bowel problems and had prior surgery so she was well aware of what symptoms would qualify her condition as an emergency.  At the hospital, the intake nurse decided that this was not an emergency or a typical non-urgent condition, which meant that she was in some sort of grey area where she was not going to see a doctor, period.  My client was with her mother at the time and made a big fuss over this, as anyone in their right mind should do.  Ultimately, the nurse decided that since my client was a veterinary technician, that she was “close enough to being a nurse”, so she gave my client medications and verbal instructions on what to do if her mother’s condition worsens.  None of the medications were labelled nor were any written instructions provided.  This is something I would expect from a third world country! Fortunately, the impaction passed and she did not require further treatment.

The Worst: QUEBEC “You’re better off going back to Ontario or go to the US.”   

Approximate wait time to see a doctor: 36-72 hours

Yes, it gets worse!  Quebec is by far the worst province in Canada to receive healthcare.  On one trip, I had a very severe bacterial infection in my chest and in required antibiotics ASAP so that I didn’t develop pneumonia.  In the late evening when my condition worsened, I called around including the emergency department and they informed me that my best bet was to simply show up at a walk-in clinic at 7am when they opened and I might be able to see a doctor in the next day or two.  So, that’s exactly what I did.  When I showed up at 7am the walk-in clinic was fully booked for the next 2 days! Is it just me or do they have some deluded idea of what a walk-in clinic is??? They told me that I could either show up at another clinic tomorrow morning to book an appointment, or go to the emergency department and wait a guaranteed 36 hours minimum! I lividly told the nurses, “I could be dead of pneumonia by then!!” and then they told me, “You’re better off going back to Ontario or go to the US”.  So, I cancelled the rest of my business trip and drove home to Ontario where I saw a doctor right away and got the medication I needed.  Sometimes you just have to do things like that.  If you don’t have your health, there isn’t much you can do in life.  Know your priorities.

Ironically, Quebecers pay the highest income taxes in Canada.

I would love to hear from you about your experiences with healthcare.  In particular, to my fellow Canadians, I am interested in hearing your experiences with our healthcare system in each province.  I would also like to hear from my American readers about your experience with the promptness of healthcare in the USA and if it varies by state.

Travel Safe and Keep Healthy fellow Travellers.

Cheers,

 

TSW

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