Navigating the Canadian Health Care System


Shannon Dunne

Masters in Music and Health Science at University of Toronto

Many people are familiar with the concept of “universal health care” and often associate the term with the Canadian system. While the term may seem self-explanatory, Canada’s health care system is complex. “Universal health care” refers to the fact that Canadian citizens and individuals with immigration status can use their provincial health card to visit the hospital, walk-in clinics, and their family physicians for no cost. The benefits of this system are clear when we consider how economic disparities affect access to health care services in other countries.

However, some people hear the term “universal health care” and make two incorrect assumptions. The first assumption is that our health care is free for all Canadians. While it may feel costless to go to the emergency room, Canadians pay taxes to maintain this system. Another assumption made often under the pretense of “universal health care” is that all health care services are free. Unfortunately, this is also inaccurate. For example, if a person develops a cavity and doesn’t have insurance coverage through an employer or educational institution, they have to pay for their treatment. Other individuals have difficulty paying for certain medications if they don’t have insurance. Additionally, services through private clinics, such as physiotherapy, are not covered by provincial health cards. Therefore, while the Canadian system has many benefits, many citizens don’t have access to important services due to funding issues.


International students attending universities in Ontario, such as the University of Toronto, will be required to pay into the University Health Insurance Plan (UHIP). This plan will provide international students with coverage for various services, such as hospital and physician, surgery, ambulance, lab, psychological, and pregnancy services. International students enrolled in this plan will receive $1,000,000 in coverage each year for services that are deemed medically necessary. Notably, UHIP does not cover prescription medications, dental care, or routine eye exams. International students seeking these services may enroll in a supplementary health care service plan to reduce these costs.

If a person requires hospital admission in Canada, algorithms are used to determine the amount of funding that will be provided to them, which determines the length of stay. For example, a person who experiences a brain injury will be assessed by a health care team on their cognitive and physical functioning. The scores of this assessment will then be entered into a system that determines the amount of funding allocated to the hospital to support them. If the hospital staff determine the patient requires more inpatient services once the funding has been used, they can apply for more.

Once the individual leaves the inpatient unit to return to the community, they may receive outpatient health care services such as occupational and physical therapy, social work, speech language pathology, or nursing. As mentioned earlier, private clinics that provide therapy are not covered by provincial health cards. These services would only be covered for the patient recovering from a brain injury if they are approved by the Home and Community Care Support Services. Hospital staff will send a request for these services during the patient’s hospital stay, meaning that patients don’t need to worry about applying.

Evidently, the Canadian health care system has many benefits. While international students are required to enroll in a paid plan, the benefits of having insurance coverage in the event of an accident are invaluable. Your time studying in Canada will be much more enjoyable if you can access health care services when you need them!