Getting Sick or Injured in Canada:

Unlike the United States, Canada has a socialized medical system - sort of. Unfortunately, many visitors assume that if they become sick or injured in Canada, all their needs will be taken care of for free. This is not the case. (By the way, thanks to Jim Guthrie for correcting some of my information, hopefully everything here is as accurate as possible.)

By the way, drugs are considerably cheaper in Canada than in the US. It is possible to get prescription drugs via mail order from Canada. standards here are as high, if not higher than in the US, so I would not be concerned about quality. There are several companies doing this, here is a link to a couple: Canadian Pharmacy - Canada Drugs Online or World Drug Mart

The current Canadian Medical System is largely the result of one man, Tommy Douglas, who led a party called the CCF in the 50's, the predecessor of the current NDP (New Democratic Party). This left-wing party has never held power Federally, but has Provincially. Tommy Douglas established Socialized Medicine in the Province of Saskatchewan in the 50's & the system eventually spread throughout the country.   The system has served the people of Canada well, and you would be hard pressed to find anyone in Canada who would like to see it disappear. Socialized Medicine is a "sacred cow" in Canada and most Canadians consider it as much of a right, as free speech. The system is, however, under attack by right-wing Provincial ( like State, in the US) Governments in some Provinces such as Ontario, Alberta & British Columbia. Some private clinics have appeared in those Provinces, and nearly every Province has been eyeing the system as a way to cut budgets. I might add that the term 'Socialized Medicine' is a bit of a misnomer. More accurately, Canada actually has "Socialized Medical Insurance". In other words, medical care in this country is not as universal as some might believe. Medical Insurance is designed to be affordable to everyone, and the government provides coverage to those who cannot afford it. (Assuming they are on Welfare, Handicapped, etc). Doctors are paid on fixed wage scales set by the Provinces. It is very difficult to sue a doctor for mal-practice and the settlements for successful cases are not likely to be huge, but more in line with compensation for wage loss & that sort of thing. Large mal-practice lawsuits is probably the primary reason for the extraordinary cost of medical care in the United States. An incompetent doctor is more likely to be put out of business through disciplinary action by their own medical association than through bankruptcy due to a mal-practice suit.

Medical standards in Canada are high. It is actually very difficult for a doctor from another country to obtain licensing to practice in Canada. I personally know a Russian Surgeon who has tried, and its not easy. Many doctors, however, are immigrants. There is talk of making it easier for a foreign doctor to practice if they are willing to go to a small, under-served town for a few years. Getting doctors to live & work in small towns is a big problem. This is actually largely a result of our medical system, since doctors in such areas usually carry a greater patient load, but still receive the same remuneration.

Basic control of the philosophy of Socialized Medicine resides with the Federal Government, although the Provinces control their individual systems. The federal Government keeps Provincial Governments in check, by controlling transfer payments (federal taxes allotted back to the Provincial Governments) . The down side of the Canadian medical system is that you can often be faced with long waiting lists for some treatments, especially those not considered life threatening. This is the trade off. The current system is in considerable trouble and will likely be overhauled over the next few years. A recent commission assigned to study the state of health care in Canada has just released its results and recommends the influx of considerable more funds and the discouragement of a two-tiered system. (which already exists to some extent, especially in BC & Alberta).  My own wife is currently embroiled in a fight with the Workers Compensation Board (they are disallowing her claim, a common practice). She requires an operation on her shoulder for a work related injury, and now is faced with the choice of waiting 4 months to get it through the regular system or jump the queue and get it done at a Private Clinic for $4500. We can afford the operation, but she feels its immoral that she should be able to queue-jump. This illustrates the feelings most Canadians have towards our medical system.

If you do have to go to Hospital, however, they will not demand a credit card before treating you has has been the case on occasion below the border. You can be reasonably re-assured that should end up unconscious in an emergency ward, you will be treated without a credit check being done first. The only exceptions are private clinics, usually offering specialized services such as MRI's to individuals who are willing to pay extra for faster service. The medical system here is much cheaper than that in the United States, and its very unlikely you would face financial ruin if you ended up in hospital here without insurance. Even a moderate medical insurance policy in the U.S. would more than cover a hospital stay here, assuming it was valid outside of the country.

So what do I advise? Check with your medical insurer before coming here & make sure you are covered for doctor/hospital visits. It is usually a good idea to purchase additional coverage. Extra insurance will usually cover all your costs, plus any cost to fly you back home (or return your body, if your really unlucky).

Most hospitals in Vancouver have emergency rooms, but some don't and some only operate certain hours. The new "Liberal" Government, the name of which is a bit of a misnomer (I guess you can tell, I don't like them much), is in the process of gutting the health system in this Province and many Hospitals have had services severely cut back as of late. You can also go to any walk-in Clinic. These are quite reasonable and a visit with a doctor will not likely cost you much more than $100.

You should also be aware that you can only obtain prescription drugs with a prescription authorized by a doctor licensed to practice in BC. If you require prescription drugs, you should bring them with you or obtain a note from your doctor and then see a local doctor at a walk in Clinic. If you are bringing in any drugs that would be classified as narcotics, you should definitely have a note from your doctor, or you will encounter problems when you cross the border. When I travel in other countries, I usually carry my own syringes in case I ever need them. This is not a concern in Canada, standards are very high.


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