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How to Get a Referral Without a Family Doctor

April 19, 2024 • read

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How to Get a Referral Without a Family Doctor

Maybe you have a suspicious mole you’d like to get checked out, or maybe you want to start a family and have questions about your fertility. In either case, your family doctor may want you to see a specialist. To book an appointment with one, such as a dermatologist or gynecologist, you’ll need a referral. 

A referral is a written request from your primary care doctor, such as a family doctor or physician, for you to see a specialist or have a medical service. Specialists are healthcare providers who have received extra medical training in fields such as heart, cancer, or skin health, and medical services are tests like blood work, ultrasounds, and other diagnostic procedures that provide further insight into a health concern. 

How do I get a referral for a specialist?

In Canada, you need a referral to see a specialist, which can come from your family doctor, a general practitioner (GP), or a nurse practitioner. The referral is important because it prevents specialists, of which there are few, from getting overbooked and potentially unable to efficiently tend to patients with more serious conditions. 

Here’s how it works: If your family doctor or GP isn’t able to treat you and determines a specialist is needed, they will refer you to one. In a few days or weeks, the specialist’s office will call you with a pre-booked appointment, which you can reschedule if necessary. But it’s important to note that wait times for some specialists can be lengthy, so it may be a good idea to take the first date and time offered, if possible.

Specialists and medical services in Canada are covered by your provincial health coverage unless they are considered to be cosmetic or voluntary (such as massage therapy). However, you may have an extended health plan offered by your employer or university, which can make the treatment fully or partially covered.

How long does it take to get a referral?

While referral wait times in Canada differ depending on where you live and what type of specialist you need to see, we’re sorry to say that they’re generally getting worse year after year. A report by the Fraser Institute reveals that most Canadians in 2023 had to wait longer for referrals and treatments than in the year prior. Specifically, the wait time from getting a referral for a specialist to receiving treatment increased from 27.4 weeks in 2022 to 27.7 weeks in 2023. 

Why would a referral be refused?

There are a few reasons your request for a referral may be refused. 

  • Your doctor may not believe a second opinion is necessary. That may be because they performed a thorough examination and are confident with their diagnosis,
  • They may not have understood the extent of the problem, perhaps due to a lack of time during the appointment or an accidental oversight. 
  • It may also be implicit bias, where your doctor may not have taken you and your symptoms seriously due to assumptions based on your sex, race, or age.

If you feel something isn’t right—if your symptoms persist or if you’ve been experiencing them for a long time—and your doctor still doesn’t refer you to a specialist for a second opinion or testing, it’s important to advocate for yourself. Ask them why they refuse the referral and to record the request and their refusal in your patient file. If you’ve already tried your family doctor, try a walk-in clinic. If you don’t have a family doctor and tried a GP at a walk-in, try another one.

You can also try tapping into virtual care. We have many specialists in our network, and we can connect you with one who could provide a second opinion on your health concern, and depending on the issue, may be able to offer a referral for a test or for you to see a specialist.

Do I need a family doctor to get a referral?

In Canada, you must see a family doctor or a GP to get a referral for a specialist. This isn’t the same as in the U.S. or other countries like France, where people can book an appointment with a specialist on their own. That’s why in Canada, having a family doctor can be crucial for your health.

Unfortunately, about one in six Canadians don’t have access to a family doctor since there’s a shortage in Canada. If that’s you, there are a few ways you can get one. Every province and territory has a website that explains how to find one in that location. Here’s more information on finding a doctor in your area:

You can also ask someone you know for a recommendation, and call their doctor’s office to ask if they’re accepting new patients. Another option is contacting the community health centre in your area, or if you’re new to Canada, an immigrant-serving organization.

While you wait for a family doctor, virtual care might be able to step in and help in the meantime. We have specialists in our network who may be able to provide a diagnosis, treatment, order a lab test, or referral to select specialists.

How can I get a referral in Canada without a family doctor?

If you don’t have a family doctor, you can visit a walk-in clinic to request a referral. They can refer you to specialists as well as many healthcare services so you can get the specialized treatment you need. You can also request a referral from nurse practitioners, who have received extra medical training and both can order tests and make referrals to specialists. You may also be able to get the treatment and referral you’re after by exploring virtual care

Can I go directly to a specialist in Canada? 

As mentioned, unlike in the U.S. and other countries where people can book directly with a specialist of their choosing, that’s not exactly possible in Canada. Here, you need a referral from a family doctor from a walk-in clinic.  

But you can see some specialists virtually. We can match you with a range of physicians who may be able to answer your health questions. Need a referral? Our doctors can provide them for paramedical services including physiotherapists, massage therapy, and chiropractors. 

At this time, our doctors at Maple aren’t able to provide specialist referrals for physicians like neurologists and surgeons. That’s because in Canada, referring physicians must follow up on all patient referrals, and because Maple is an on-demand service, our doctors aren’t able to provide follow-up care. But with our team of specialists—including dermatologists, psychologists, endocrinologists, gynaecologists, paediatricians, mental health therapists, naturopaths, and registered dietitianswe may be able to help alleviate your worries and send you on your path to recovery.

Maple is safe and effective for common non-emergency issues, saving you time and offering ease of mind. If you believe you are experiencing an emergency, please call 911 or proceed to your nearest emergency room.

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