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“The Doctor Will (Hopefully) See You Now”: The Canadian Walk-In Clinic How-To Guide

"An apple a day keeps the doctor away"
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”

Not feeling well? Don’t have a fancy medical degree? Don’t worry, Canada has your back. Here is a quick how-to guide on what to do if you need to see a doctor.

It is based on my experience and this is mostly for Ontario, although I suspect it works for every Canadian province. But do share your experience!

Assess the situation

  • If it’s a true life-threatening emergency, call 911. Yes, like in the movies.
  • If it’s a shit-I-don’t-know situation, you may want to contact Telehealth Ontario at 1-866-797-0000 (other provinces may have a similar service). This free 24/7 service allows you to speak to a Registered Nurse. They won’t make a diagnosis over the phone but they can help you figure out what to do.
  • If you have a family doctor, you can try to make an appointment.
  • If you don’t have a family doctor or cannot get a timely appointment, your best option is to visit a walk-in clinic.

For the next few hours, forget about any drama you may have heard or read in the news about the Canadian health care system. Sure, it’s not perfect—long wait times, shortage of doctors, etc. It may be very different than what you were used to at home (hey, I know what I’m talking about, French family doctors used to make home visits!). But the level of care you will get in Canada is good. Plus, again, you don’t have a medical degree, do you?

Go online

Alright, so we are going to assume that, like many Canadians, you will go to a walk-in clinic to see a doctor. A walk-in clinic is basically a medical facility that accept patients on a walk-in basis and with no appointment required. They are usually in a convenient location, sometime in places you wouldn’t expect, for instance inside supermarkets. Most are affiliated with a network: in Ottawa, the Appletree medical group is one of the most common brand.

Go online and get information about the clinic. Check the opening hours (they vary widely), check if there are any restrictions (for instance, some doctors won’t see kids) and most importantly, check the wait time if it is available. Appletree clinics do have a relatively up-to-date wait time average. In some clinics, it will be four hours, in other, it will be only 30 minutes. Pick accordingly if you are flexible about the location. You don’t want to spend a morning sitting among sick people.

Don’t forget to take your health card with you! If you don’t have it, you will have to pay for the visit. As of 2015, most clinics in Ottawa charge $60 for a doctor visit. On a side note, if you do have a health card but it’s expired or if you forget it, you can get the visit fee refunded once you show proof of coverage (it will take months to get a cheque, though).

Check in at the clinic

Push the door and don’t expect to be greeted by a human being. A few clinics have a receptionist but most simply have a self-service kiosk where you have to register providing basic information such as your name, health card number and reason for the visit. They you will be issued a number. You can now go sit by the giant one-liter bottle of hand sanitizer and breathe in the germs (or grab one of the masks provided and breathe in your own germs).

Distractions in the waiting room are very limited. Don’t expect a TV or magazines. Bring your own if your fever isn’t high enough to just stare idly at the wall and if you’re not a fan of brochures detailing the various kinds of STDs you can get.

Wait time really vary. You will get an idea by the number of people in the waiting room, but remember that visit at the walk-in clinic don’t take long. On occasion, I only waited for about ten minutes. The longest wait time for us was about three hours, I think.

Meet the nurse

At one point, a nurse will call your name and you will be led to a small room for an interrogation… I mean, a first assessment. The nurse will confirm your information and ask about your symptoms. Remember that you are a new patient so mention anything that could be relevant in your medical history or in your recent history (for example if you’ve been abroad, if you were in contact with someone sick, etc.).

The nurse may check your fever, blood pressure, etc. and leave.

Get ready to wait some more in this tiny room.

If you came with someone, the person may stay with you the entire time if you wish so. However, bringing several people may be frown upon (did I mention how tiny the exam room is?).

Meet the doctor

Eventually, the doctor will come. Don’t expect social niceties (this is one of the rare times when a Canadian doesn’t engage in small talk!) and get to the point: from my experience, you have about five minutes to make your case. I’m not kidding. A few doctors will be adamant that they treat one problem per visit, so don’t start asking about something unrelated to your current symptoms.

Doctors each have a style. Some will tell you what’s going on, other will leave without a word and the nurse will come back with a prescription. They are usually cordial but very rushed and it shows.

Note that doctors don’t prescribe easily here (less than in France, I find). You will often be told to take over-the-counter medicine or to “wait it out”. If you need further medical tests (blood work, X-rays, etc.) you may be referred to another facility.

There will be no follow up and you are not guaranteed to see the same doctor again if you come back, so get all the information you need.

And that’s it! You can leave, if you are covered with OHIP (in Ontario) or other health insurance system in your province, you don’t have to pay anything.

A few useful links:


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