Canadian Health Care System

Health care in Canada is publicly funded. Provincially, this means that Alberta resident taxpayers pay for health care coverage for most Albertans.

Alberta Health is the provincial government ministry responsible for setting and enforcing provincial health policy, including health care expenditures, defining coverage settings, and offering the Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan (AHCIP).

Alberta Health Services (AHS) is the provincial organization responsible for delivery of health care services to Albertans, and is the organization through which Alberta Health provides health care to Alberta residents.


Different Levels of Health Care in Canada

Canada has a referral health care system, where there is more than one level of health care service. This means, in general, that you cannot access the next level of health services directly. Instead, you will most likely be referred to the next level of care by a health professional. For example, a family physician can refer you to an eyes/ears/nose/throat (EENT) specialist or to a dermatologist if, after assessment, the family physician believes the next level of care is necessary.

The following levels outline how you will be referred to health professionals in the Canadian health care system:

Primary Health Care Services

  • First point of contact in the Canadian health care system.
  • Health professionals will provide you with direct health care and ensure continuity of your health care by referring you to more specialized services (eg. specialists, hospitals visits) when/if needed.
  • Examples of primary care providers at this level include family physicians, pharmacists, and community medical clinic personnel.


Secondary Health Care Services

  • Second level of care in the Canadian health care system and includes hospital stays or services through a specialist's care.
  • Access to theses services typically involves visiting your primary health provider who, after assessment of your health-related concerns, will determine if a referral is necessary.
  • Examples of secondary health providers include EENT specialists, dietitians, gynecologists, and nephrologists. Important note about dietitian and gynecology services at the University Health Centre (UHC): You do not require a referral from a primary health provider to access dietitian and gynecologist services at the UHC located in 2-200 SUB.


Tertiary Health Care Services

  • Third level of care in the Canadian health care system and involves highly specialized care in an institutional setting.
  • Access to these services generally depends on receiving a referral from a secondary health provider/service who, after further assessment of your health-related concerns, determined that a referral to a tertiary health provider was necessary.
  • Examples of tertiary care providers include cardiac and orthopedic surgeons.

Drop-in/walk-in clinic
If you have a medical concern, you can visit medical centres without booking appointments (e.g., University Health Centre in SUB 2-200).
Registered nurse
A nurse who is licensed to practice after receiving 4 years of university-level training.
This terms refers to health professionals who assess patients and determine who should be treated first. The priority in this case is not first-come, first-serve. Instead, priority is based on the severity of the medical situation.
Additional prescribing authority
Alberta pharmacists have a unique ability to obtain this type of authority. This authority allows them to write prescriptions for certain medications (e.g., antibiotics, antidepressants, inhalers, birth control drugs, heart medications, and diabetes medications) as a way to provide ongoing patient care.
Referral health care system
This means there is more than one level of health care service where, upon assessment from a health provider, you may be referred to additional medical services. In Canada, there is primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of health care services.
Ongoing medical care
Receiving ongoing medical care means that you are receiving continuous care, and/or coming back to the same doctor as other medical issues come up. This term can also indicate that you have a designated family doctor.
Private practice
Canada's health care system is publicly funded. However, some health practitioners offer services that are either partially covered or not covered at all (as outlined in your insurance plan) because they are not "medically necessary" services (e.g., cosmetic surgery). These health practitioners have a private practice.