Updated: Jul 29
It can be overwhelming trying to navigate the healthcare system, especially when you are struggling with a new or old health problem. Having a planned place where you can go for care, whether it is a primary care provider or walk-in clinic, will hopefully help to lessen the burden if you ever become sick or injured in the future. Both your primary care provider and local walk-in clinic are meant for non-urgent medical problems (eg. colds, ear infections, minor sprains or wounds etc). If you are experiencing an urgent medical emergency (eg. severe chest pain, difficulty breathing, severe bleeding, or loss of consciousness etc), please visit your local hospital’s emergency department or your community’s equivalent to an emergency department. This article will provide helpful information on primary care providers and walk-in clinics, including what makes them different, their scope of practice, and how to establish care or visit their clinic.
What is a primary care provider?
A primary care provider is a family doctor or nurse practitioner who practices general medicine. They are someone who you can book appointments with as needed when you have a new medical concern, or routinely for health screenings. Primary care providers usually require you to book an appointment ahead of time. Appointments can be made online or over the phone, depending on the individual practice. Sometimes you may have to wait a few days or weeks before seeing your provider, so for serious medical emergencies it is best to visit the emergency department at your local hospital. A primary care provider is meant to be a long-term provider, meaning that they will be providing healthcare over multiple years. When you book an appointment with your primary care provider you may be seen by a nurse practitioner or physician assistant who works at the primary care clinic. . The specific services may vary slightly between providers, but generally a primary care provider can diagnose and treat common illnesses or injuries, refer you to health care specialists, monitor folks with chronic health conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure, prescribe medications, and conduct regular check-ups and routine screening tests like pap tests (for cervical cancer). Primary care providers also provide referrals, acting as gatekeepers for seeing other health care specialists (eg. gynecologists, endocrinologists, psychiatrists, etc).
Most services offered by a primary care provider are covered under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) when you have a health card. Details on what services are covered by OHIP can be found here. For folks without a health card, there are some providers who will provide service for an additional fee.There are also Community Health Centres, which are non-for-profit organizations that provide a number of services, which may include primary care. Additionally, there are programs for folks who are new to Canada*. For international students there are health insurance plans that are available at an extra cost. For students attending a public university, there is the University Health Insurance Plan, which will cover the cost of visits to a primary care provider, along with some other healthcare services. At private universities, there are other insurance plans that may be available to international students. For more information, contact the international students office at your college/university for school-specific details.
How to find and establish care with a primary care provider?
There are a few ways to establish care with a primary care provider:
Health Care Connect Service
The health care connect service is used to connect Ontario residents who do not have a family doctor with primary care providers who are accepting patients.
If you currently do not have a primary care provider, you can register for the program online or by calling 1-800-445-1822, (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm). After registering for the program, you will be connected with a nurse called a Care Connector. Your Care Connector will be your main contact and they will help find you a health care provider in your area. Once a primary care provider is found in your area, you will be referred by your Care Connector. Once referred, you must call the provider to set up an appointment with them.
To be eligible for the program:
you cannot have a current primary care provider
you must have a valid OHIP card
you must have an up-to-date mailing address that is linked with your health card
Unfortunately, primary health care providers are in high demand. The Health Care Connect program does not guarantee that a provider will be found for you. It may also take a while for the program to match you with a provider.
You can also search for a family doctor using the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s (CPSO) Find a Doctor tool. Using the “Advanced Search” option, you can find a family doctor in your area.
To do this, input your city/town or postal code. Under “Type of Doctor” select “Family Doctor”. CPSO will provide you with the doctor’s primary practice location and their contact information. Once you find a family doctor you are interested in, contact the doctor by calling their practice location to ask whether they are accepting new patients.
This method of finding a primary care provider is likely faster than using the Health Care Connect Service, but it can take a while to reach a family doctor who is accepting new patients.
If you’re seeking gynecological care and live in Ontario, check out our Clinic Finder Tool to find physicians to serve your needs by clicking here. To learn more about what to look for when selecting a primary care provider, check out our article here.
What is a walk-in clinic?
A walk-in clinic is a medical center providing care for folks who are unable to see a family doctor or who do not have a family doctor. The specific services provided vary between clinics, but most can diagnose and treat minor illnesses and injuries, provide referrals, or write prescriptions. These clinics are meant for non-urgent problems (Eg. sprained ankle, emergency contraception, stomach upset, etc). They are not equipped to manage life-threatening medical emergencies (Eg. severe chest pain, loss of consciousness, difficulty breathing etc). For urgent life-threatening problems, it is best to visit the emergency department of your local hospital instead.
In a walk-in clinic, you will be seen by a general practitioner or a nurse practitioner. The provider you are seeing can provide short-term care. At a walk-in clinic you can be seen on the same day you arrive at the clinic. If you visit the walk-in clinic again, you may have a different provider providing care. This is one of the main differences between walk-in clinics and primary care providers. With primary care providers, you would normally have a single family doctor who consistently provides your care and it may be a few weeks before they are available to see you for an appointment.
Most services provided by walk-in clinics are free with your health card. For folks without a health card, services may have an additional fee. There are some programs for folks who are new to Canada* and clinics that may provide free care to those without coverage.
Walk-in clinics do not require a referral from another doctor or health care provider. Most clinics do not require an appointment. However, there are some clinics that do require appointments so it is best to check with the clinic beforehand.
How do you visit a walk-in clinic?
Seeing a provider at a walk-in clinic is simple:
Prepare for your visit. Confirm whether the clinic requires an appointment to see a provider. Most clinics do not require an appointment, but there are some that do. Appointments can often be booked on the clinic’s website or over the phone.
Arrive at the clinic. For clinics that don’t require appointments, patients are seen on a first come, first served basis. When you arrive at the clinic you will be placed in a queue to see a provider. If possible, try to arrive early at the clinic to avoid long wait times. Wait times at walk-in clinics can be quite long, so it is also helpful to bring something to occupy yourself in the waiting room. If the clinic does offer appointments, arrive at the clinic at your scheduled appointment time.
Above we have discussed the “how” of seeking healthcare. Unfortunately, there are certain limitations that currently exist that may still make it difficult to access this care. As mentioned within this article, the current healthcare system in Ontario is overwhelmed (as it is in most parts of the country). Finding a primary care provider may be difficult because there are not enough to support our population. As a result, many folks rely on walk-in clinics as their only source of healthcare, which means walk-in clinics are often busy too. Both of these factors can make it difficult to seek healthcare. Hopefully this article has given you some useful tips that make the process of seeking health care a little bit easier even with the challenges of the current healthcare landscape.
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Government of Ontario. What OHIP Covers. 2022 Nov 10. Available from: https://www.ontario.ca/page/what-ohip-covers#section-1[Accessed 2022 Dec 27]
Government of Ontario. Walk-in Clinics. 2022 Apr 25. Available from: https://www.ontario.ca/page/walk-clinics#section-1 [Accessed 2022 Dec 27]
Government of Ontario. Find a Family Doctor or Nurse Practitioner. 2022 Nov 30. Available from: https://www.ontario.ca/page/find-family-doctor-or-nurse-practitioner#doctors [Accessed 2022 Dec 27]
Government of Ontario. Study in Ontario: International Students. 2022 Dec 16. Available from: https://www.ontario.ca/page/study-ontario-international-students#section-6 [Accessed 2022 Dec 27]
Health Ontario. Community Health Centres. 2019 May 13. Available from: https://www.health.gov.on.ca/en/common/system/services/chc/default.aspx [Accessed 2022 Dec 27]
Government of Canada. Interim Federal Health Program: What is Covered. 2022 Apr 28. Available from: https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/refugees/help-within-canada/health-care/interim-federal-health-program/coverage-summary.html [Accessed 2022 Dec 27]