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Accessing the Healthcare System and in the Case of Emergency

To access fire, ambulance and police services, in case of an emergency in progress, dial 911 anywhere in Canada. Most telephone books contain contact information for a variety of emergency services to call in case of an accidental poisoning, physical assault or other emergency health situations. It is advisable to make these numbers available within the household as a routine measure.

Many newcomers to Canada opt to go directly to a hospital emergency department when a health problem presents itself. Doing so without understanding how the Canadian health system works can cause frustrating delays, bottlenecks in service and unnecessary expenses. As with any emergency service, triage personnel determine the urgency of a patient’s condition. If the condition is not urgent or life-threatening, a patient may end up waiting several hours before being seen by a doctor. This kind of inefficiency can be avoided by understanding the levels of health services offered in Canada.

In addition to general hospitals and health clinics, Canada offers free, confidential telephone services that can be accessed for health advice or general health information 24-hours a day, seven days a week. These services are Telehealth Ontario (1 866-797-0000), Info-Santé Québec (811), HEALTHLink Alberta (811) and HealthLinkBC (811). Callers speak directly with a Registered Nurse. Callers are asked to describe their symptoms and answer questions to best assess the seriousness of the problem. Based on the assessment, the Registered Nurse can advise self-care, recommend a visit to a health practitioner and provide phone numbers for nearby community resources or recommend a visit to an emergency service. The Registered Nurse will send notes based on the telephone call directly to the nearest hospital or a hospital of the caller’s choice. These services are provided in English and French and, at times, offer translation support. Callers may also be connected to medication information and health information audio tapes.

A call to these services does not replace 911 — that is always the first number one should call in emergency situations.

To save time, use the available resources to the fullest extent and access the healthcare system as soon as possible, patients may want to consider the following steps:

  1. First call the Health Telephone Service (Telehealth Ontario: 1 866 797 0000; Info-Santé Québec: 811;HEALTHLink Alberta:811; or HealthLinkBC: 811
  1. Call a (family) doctor, community health clinic or network clinic (should the time of the day permit)
  1. Go to an emergency department or urgent care clinic, if urgency is required
  1. Set up an appointment with your family doctor/health clinic to checkup/follow up.

Canada also maintains the Canadian Poison Control Centre which can be called 24-hours a day if you believe that you or another individual may have ingested a poisonous substance. The number for this service is 1-800-268-9017.