Canada, We Have an Issue

Drugs, Please

Drugs, Please

Monday morning, 9 a.m. There are a hundred of places where I’d rather be but it’s too late, Feng is already parking. We brought the survival kit: tablet, water, phones, Kindle. And Mark’s health card, of course.

Mark has been dragging a cold for weeks now. For the third time this month, we go to the walk-in clinic trying to score drugs or something that can help him other than the usual “wait it out and come back if it gets worse.”

The walk-in clinic opens at 9 a.m. and we checked the wait time online before we left to pick the location with the most doctors and the most manageable wait.

It’s 9:05 a.m. and the fifteen seats are all taken.

We register, a process that doesn’t involve talking to a human being: we simple swipe Mark’s health card in a terminal and confirm the information on screen. The machine assures us they are “only” four patients ahead of us but that a doctor will see us soon. Quick math—fifteen minutes per patient, a least an hour’s wait.

Not bad.

Feng and Mark find two seats and I stand by the window.

The room is painted institutional beige and there are printed signs that advise people not to “PUT CHAIRS BY THE WALL”. In the corner, a CCTV plays the same commercial over and over again. People check their phone, chat a bit, one guy even brought his laptop and he sitting on the carpet, watching a movie.

From time to time, the one door to the holy grail of exam rooms opens and a name is called.

There is a bell at the reception. Technically, if you ring it, someone comes over to answer your question or help out, but six people have been waiting around for twenty minutes. One elderly patient sights and sits on his walker.


I know what’s coming, I can see Mark doing the need-to-pee dance. We’ve been waiting for 90 minutes already. Hell, I need to pee too.

The bathroom is past the locked door, in the hallway where all the exam rooms are. I walk to the reception with Mark and ring the bell. “I rang it a while ago”, a woman informs me. “No one is coming.”

I know. I’ve seen the crowd waiting.

“He needs to pee,” I explain.

“Maybe if you’d knock on the door…?”

I knock on the door. No answer.

“Look, I think there is a bathroom in the pharmacy,” another woman chimes in.

We’ve all been in a situation where we had to take a kid to the bathroom or needed to go, people sympathize.

“Yeah, but if she goes, she loses her spot,” a guy adds.

Exactly my fear.

The door finally opens when a patient leaves. I walk in with Mark, find the bathroom and we return to the waiting room.

We have yet to meet or speak with anyone from the clinic at this point.

Two and a half hour later, Mark is called. We go to the exam room. A nurse comes in and ask for basic information. There is no introduction, no small talk. There is no need for that, we won’t see her again.

We wait for another thirty minutes for the doctor. Mark is so bored, he is begging me to read him a story, except the “book” he wants is one of the brochures on STD testing.

The doctor comes in. Again, no introduction needed.

“Okay, he has to take antibiotics for five days.”

This is sad but I’m actually happy we are finally prescribed antibiotics. I’m fully aware it’s not a magical solution but I want to give us a chance of getting better. In a country where it’s frowned upon to take sick days and where seeing a doctor pretty much requires to take a day off, many people rely on over-the-counter drugs and viruses go around.

“This one really doesn’t taste good, most kids hate it,” she adds.

I roll my eyes. I can already picture a fight with Mark and above all, we can’t waste a single drop of the antibiotic since only the required amount in given.

I hate myself for it but I’m about to become that difficult patient, that annoying mother.

“Ahem… Can’t we get the same antibiotic as usual?”

I don’t want to question the doctor’s prescription. I respect her training, I really do. I don’t think drugs are supposed to taste good. I think she knows best.

Yet, I’m not coming back here again in a few days.

Eventually, the doctor switches to the other kid-friendly antibiotic.

We still have to queue at the pharmacy for the prescription but it can wait, now Mark is hungry. No wonder, it’s past mid-day.

There is something wrong with our healthcare system and I say it as a Canadian, not as an immigrant. This is not a case of “boy, it was sooo much better back home!” It’s not. I’m not comparing both countries. And I know how cliché it sounds to complain about the healthcare system. I mean, who doesn’t have a bad experience with it? It’s like complaining about the government, your boss, your parents if you are a teen.

Yet, I have grown to dislike the Canadian healthcare system. Sure, I’m grateful we don’t have to deal with insurance and medical debt like in the US. Yet, I find our system so inefficient, so dehumanizing…

Strike one, for me, was the year spent looking for a doctor who would take Feng’s back pain seriously and the long wait for the subsequent MRI and surgery.

Then came the pregnancy. Nine months of being chastised, of being treated like an incubator. Mark was well taken care of. I wasn’t. Looking back, it sounds so crazy that after a night spent delivering a baby I was sent to a shared room with Mark, that no one let me rest and that we were sent home less than 24 hour later. I started my job as a new mom not having slept for 48 hours. Meanwhile, all the hospital team cared about was how secure our car seat was.

This was just the beginning of being constantly patronized. Yes, we have carbon monoxide detector and yes, we are feeding our son—would you mind taking a look at what we came for today, please?

And now with Mark, who, like any young kid, occasionally gets sick. “Well, of course… if he is going to daycare, het gets sick!” said one of the doctors we saw last year. Oh, I’m sorry, how long should I have shielded it from—gasp!—people for?

So much emphasis is put on prevention here. We are targeted by an endless stream of commonsensical messages: eat healthy, exercise, get your flu shot, don’t drink, eat this, don’t smoke, eat that, drive carefully, get tested for this, get screened for that… Sure, great. But how about a reliable healthcare system for when we need it?


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. I’m sorry Mark is sick, and I hope he will get better soon. 🙁
    I hear you about the canadian healthcare system. I would dare saying that it is even worse in Québec 🙁

    • Yes, I’ve heard it was worst in some parts of Quebec. Terrifying. Did you deal with the healthcare system when you were there?

  2. Well, I’ll say it instead: it is better ‘back home’ (ie in France), but there is a huge deficit as well and who knows how long they can go on. When I go to the doctor in France, however, I never wait more than an hour. I would say that that would be the maximum amount of time I have ever waited, but maybe it’s different in other parts of the country.

    Things never used to be like this in Canada, at least not in my experience growing up there. I never went to these clinics and had a family doctor that I would call to make an appointment to see and then I would show up and saw her more or less at the appointed hour.

    Now when I visit my parents talk about going to these clinics and having to wait a long time, just like you are writing here.

    I wonder what happened?

    • Even about ten years ago, when I first came here, it wasn’t as bad. Feng and I had to see the doctor a few times and I can’t remember waiting more than about an hour.

  3. Hey, it’s Angélique (used to write on Aller Simple Pour Ottawa).

    I can’t agree more. And it is definitely better in France (provided you’re in a urban area). I don’t like the health care system here either.

    Just like you, I had a bad experience when pregnant and my son’s birth was a nightmare.
    I had a bad experience too in the emergency… But always at the Civic. Another hospital proved to be better.

    I feel like most family doctor see themselves as drug dispenser. Specialists have been better for me but it took me more than a year to get an appointment with a neurologist for migraines. I mean… Ugh.

    It’s really hard to get good healthcare in Ottawa. Maybe it’s better in bigger cities like Toronto or Vancouver.

    I hope Mark gets better soon!

    • I’m so glad to hear from you! And apparently, you’ve been busy and I need to catch up. A baby, a son? Congratulations! When, how are you doing, what’s his name… oh boy, we do need to catch!

      I’m sorry you had a bad experience at the Civic. Mark’s birth was a great experience for me, at least the labour part (and I know I was lucky, I had it easy). Right after, though, I was treated like shit. I asked a few questions (as in… ahem, how many stitches did you give me and am I supposed to do something?) and the replies were “don’t worry about it, you need to take care of your baby”. And thus started the long guilt trip.

      Get in touch if you have the chance, I’d love to hear from you!

  4. I think that wait times are longer in the spring and the fall because of the flu going around. The number of doctors on duty at the clinic and the time of day also makes a difference. It is hard to judge it right. In the evening there are fewer people but also fewer doctors.

    They should stop employers from abusing the system by forcing employees to get a doctor’s note after 3 days sick. This is a futile exercise that wastes everyone’s time and money and takes up the space of someone who is really sick. How can a doctor verify that someone was sick for 3 days before he sees them. Our healthcare system should not be used to babysit employees. There are better ways to deal with absenteeism.

    I think that pharmacists should be allowed to prescribe certain common drugs such as antibiotics. They have medical training and are probably more knowledgeable about drugs than most doctors. I know doctors are trying to control the unnecessary use of antibiotics but I am sure that pharmacists wouldn’t give it out like candy. I would prefer waiting 20 minutes in the drugstore to 3 hours in the clinic.

    • The doctor’s note system is absolutely ridiculous. I’m lucky, I was never required any, and as far as I know it’s not the norm in the federal government for short sick absences. This kind of childish policy really clogs the system.

      As for the seasons, yes, clinics are busier when the weather is bad or challenging, but from experience, you can expect long wait-time year around now.

  5. I had the occasion to interact with 3 different healthcare systems: Moldova, US and Canada.
    When you talk about this subject you can’t really not compare with other systems.

    Recently Moldova reformed the funding for the healthcare by mirroring some Western countries – you have to explicitly pay for your policy. Other than that nothing really changed. You could wait for hours at the doctor’s office, the quality is usually OK. The problem starts when you need a more serious procedure, like a surgery. Then you need to start bribing doctors and hospital officials to get a decent service. Even so, a lot of more advanced procedures you can’t do them in Moldova, because they don’t exist, because there are not enough doctors, finally because it’s a poor country. Often times you need to bring your own pills, syringes, medical supplies, etc.

    I think it’s more fare to company healthcare systems in US and Canada, since I experienced both.
    You can wait in the US to see the family doctor just as much as you wait in Canada. Though that doesn’t happen that often.
    You still wait in the waiting area, then you are called to the little room and later the doctor comes to you.
    I haven’t noticed a difference in the quality of doctors either. There are good doctors here and there, like any other professionals.

    I’ve been to the ER in US and in Canada. Same triage process, it seems like it’s the same country. The difference is in how you pay for your health insurance and how much.

    What I can say from my experience is that the quality of healthcare you get in Canada is high, the issue is access to it.

    A lot of people complain about long wait times in Canada to see professionals or procedures. I personally haven’t experienced this, but I absolutely believe this is true. It’s because funding is limited, there is no secondary or private payer in this country.

    One of the issues I think is that Canada tried to mirror the US healthcare system. But the US system is much better funded.

    It’s really an issue for Canada that it’s so close the US from a healthcare perspective. They need to try and keep similar compensation for doctors (otherwise they can move to US without a lot of issues), but at the same time stay 100% in a single payer system and publicly funded.

    As you, I don’t like my visits to the clinic, though we have a family doctor and a pediatrician. Even with appointments we can sometime wait for 1-2h. We really try to avoid walk in clinics, unless it’s really necessary.

    To put my opinion in a nutshell about US vs Canadian systems: if you have money – US is better, if you don’t – the Canadian is. Maybe it doesn’t sounds right and it’s too simplistic, but money solves a lot in US. You can’t really go to a private clinic or a private surgery in Canada. But you can always have this option in the US. In Canada, even if you have money – you still need to wait like the rest of the people.

    I’ve read a lot of good things about the Australian healthcare, to me that sounds like a very good system. Mainly publicly funded, but has a private component as well. You can get free procedures from the public one and it’s “free”, but you can also use the private sector if you have money or insurance.

    Personally I can tell you that I would MUCH rather prefer the Canadian system than the one from Moldova.

    No idea how things work in other European countries.

    • I have never experienced the US healthcare system firsthand and I hope I never will consider the cost! 🙂 I think in both countries the quality of care is good. That said, sometime, in Canada, I think the focus is way too strong on topical issues (the flu, kids safety, etc.) that are very valid but there are a myriad of conditions and health problems beyond that. I get really annoyed when I’m quizzed about car seat use when I’m bringing Mark because he has a fever.

      For a French, one thing is surprising here: doctors barely touch and examine patients. In France, the first thing you often have to do is to strip to your underwear and the doctor takes a global look at your health. You can laugh about it and make fun of French being weirdly quick to strip, but it allow doctors to spot issues they may not have seen otherwise. For my post-natal checkup, the doctor just asked me questions without doing the actual exam. Look, I know my body but I’m not a healthcare professional, the doctor is here to tell me if something doesn’t look right. I don’t think doctors can do a great diagnosis in 5 minutes or less and this bothers me.

      The French system is far from being perfect, you can wait months to see some specialists–eye doctors, for instance. And the system changed a lot the past ten years or so, apparently not for the best. Yet, my family is shocked by my “Canadian healthcare system” stories even if I don’t intend to bitch about the system, I’m barely telling them about my experience. In France, new moms still stay for a few days at the clinic or hospital to rest and get a good start, you aren’t kicked out after 24 hours like here. That’s just an example and yes, I’m sore about it 😆

      One thing is for sure: healthcare professionals rock. I’m not blaming them, I’m blaming the system.

  6. Chiruza Canadiense on

    Personally speaking, Canada’s “free” health care system is one of the reasons why I chose that country….it always made me very very very angry that in Argentina, if you don’t have money or an employer who provides you private health insurance, then you’re basically screwed. You gotta go to a public hospital, and oh boy….you don’t want that. Trust me.

    It always stressed me the idea of growing old in Argentina….why is that ? Because when you’re old => You’re retired => You don’t have an employer who provides you private health insurance => You’re old, so when you’re more vulnerable and probably need to use more the health care system, you’re on your own. It’s sad, come to think about it.

    I’d rather wait a whole day and see a doctor, than not being able to do it ever because I’m poor.

    Yep, still choosing Canada…..

    • I agree, as far as I can see, the Argentinian system is kind of scary. Not just the healthcare system, the entire country… people are continuously scared it’s going to collapse, there is very little faith in it. That’s not healthy.

  7. I can totally relate to your experience with giving birth. It sounds very similar to my experience. The whole system focussed on the baby,baby, baby. Well what about the baby’s mother? It was very dehumanizing and surprising to me. I am hoping to write a blog post about it too. Katie

    • Please, do write and share!

      In a sad way, I’m glad to hear you felt the same and it’s not just me being touchy or paranoid. I wish the healthcare system treated us as a “team”, mother and baby (and father too!) instead of simply focusing on baby.

  8. 100% agree with your post. I love everything else about Canada except lagging Healthcare system. Personally, my family is gone through clueless wait time many times for what is very basic healthcare facilities in other developed countries. Hopefully, new government can bring rapid healthcare reforms to improve quality of its citizens.

  9. ici on gère plutôt bien le système dans l’ensemble. On a trois sans rendez-vous avec rendez-vous (c’est du sans rendez-vous mais il faut prendre rendez-vous, logique non?) autour de chez nous, plus un pr les enfants uniquement. Celui pr les enfants il faut appeler à 16h la veille. Des fois je loupe le coche à force de m’interroger pr savoir si elles sont vmt malades. Mais les autres c’est 20h45, 21h15, 21h30, précisement, alors je me rattrape à ce moment là 🙂

  10. By the way, est-ce qu’il tousse ? On a réussi à endiguer les rhumes de B. et de son père l’an dernier grâce à la propolis (propolis + échinacea pr B.)

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