New immigrants to Canada less likely to have regular doctor

By Costa Maragos Posted: July 14, 2016 6:00 a.m.

Master’s student Michelle Degelman (l) with Dr. Katya Herman, assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies.
Master’s student Michelle Degelman (l) with Dr. Katya Herman, assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies. Photo by Rae Graham - U of R Photography

New immigrants to Canada arrive healthier than the average Canadian. However, over time, many immigrants experience a decline in their health. This phenomenon is called the “healthy immigrant effect.”

The problem? It could be because a higher number of new immigrants do not have a regular doctor compared to non-immigrants and established immigrants.   

A new U of R study, published this month in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, investigated the relationship between immigrant status and having a regular doctor using data from the 2011-2012 Canadian Community Health Survey.

The research found that compared to non-immigrants, new immigrants were up to 60% less likely to have a regular doctor. Compare that to established immigrants, who were in fact 15% more likely to have a regular doctor than non-immigrants.

“This is particularly concerning for new immigrants given that immigrants comprise a large and growing population segment in Canada,” says Michelle Degelman, a Master's student in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies and first author on the research paper. “In fact, as of 2011, immigrants made up over 20% of the Canadian population, the highest among G8 countries”.

But it gets worse for males. Degelman’s research showed that only 55% of new immigrant males reported having a regular doctor, compared to 68% of new immigrant females.  A telling comparison is that over 80% of non-immigrants have a regular doctor.

Degelman cites other studies showing that new immigrants may experience poor geographic access to physicians, language difficulties, and a lack of culturally appropriate care. When it comes to the gender discrepancy, other studies have shown that women are more likely to seek care when they are ill and take more responsibility for the health care needs of family members, compared to men.

“Generally speaking, a physician represents the first point of contact for health care for Canadians,” says Degelman. “Having that regular doctor is essential in the early prevention and treatment of diseases, and not having one may lead to a decline in health in the long-run.”

Degelman suggests some solutions. First, policies and programs should be put in place to help new immigrants find regular doctors upon arrival to Canada. Gender-specific barriers should also be targeted as they relate to finding a regular doctor for all Canadians.

“This is an area of health care that needs attention,” says Degelman. “Any preventative measures we are able to take, whether we are immigrants or non-immigrants, will reduce the future burden on our health care system in Canada.”

Dr. Katya Herman, Degelman’s supervisor, co-author on the paper and assistant professor in the Faculty, agrees. “This was a timely project given that Canada is a country reliant on immigrants for population and economic growth, and the recent heightened interest in supporting new immigrants as they settle and integrate into their new communities”.

Michelle Degelman was supported by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Frederick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarship.