Health: Finding a Doctor Who Speaks Your Language

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By Karen Bridson-Boyczuk

Published March 2004. Some information in this article is outdated.

When Mario Calla was a little boy his family needed him to do a lot more than just walk the dog or take out the garbage.

As one of the only people in his Italian family who could speak English, Calla’s family often needed him to act as an interpreter with the English-speaking world in Toronto.

While this job was a big one for any child, it was even more difficult when he was interpreting for a doctor.

“When I was a child, whenever I went to the hospital, I ended up interpreting,” said Calla. “It is a rather delicate situation for a child. The doctor is trying to diagnose a problem. Trying to describe pain or what’s wrong is difficult enough when you are both speaking the same language, let alone when you are doing it through a child.”

Better interpreter help at hospitals today has reduced the need for children to help out. But with people from different countries moving into the Greater Toronto Area every year, getting health care in their own language remains hard for many.

The first step to getting good health care is finding a family doctor who speaks your language, says Calla, who today is head of COSTI, an immigrant and refugee help centre that offers many services in 40 languages. “It is essential,” he said. “It is not just important.”

COSTI has a refugee help desk where first doctor’s appointments can be made for newcomers. But most immigrants and refugees are left to find their own doctors.
And this is often something that they wait to do while they search for housing, jobs and English as a Second Language classes, said Julia Tao, director of employment services and immigrant services at the Woodgreen Community Centre on Danforth Avenue.

“Health care may not be a priority until they get sick,” she said.

If that happens for the new Canadian family during the three month waiting period for a Health Card (landed immigrants and refugees who were approved before coming to Canada must wait three months), it can be a big problem for a new Canadian family, said Axelle Janczur, head of Access Alliance Multicultural Community Centre (340 College St., at Spadina Avenue), a group that gives health care to newcomers.

“If they have health care needs during this time they have to pay and it can be catastrophic,” she said.

Refugees arriving in Canada without being approved in their own country are placed on an temporary federal health care plan, which covers only the most basic of health care.

Luckily anyone new to Canada and needing health care can come to the Access Alliance centre and get free health care in 40 languages.

While the Access Alliance is the only one in Toronto with a lot of interpreters, there are 20 other health care centres in Toronto that can help newcomers. Visit to find one near you.

Access Alliance also has a team of 140 interpreters. They that can be there for appointments at hospitals and doctor’s offices. They are paid for by the health care provider.

If the newcomer wants to find their own family doctor who speaks their own language, the search may be a long one.

“It is hard,” said Janczur. “Hopefully newcomers know somebody from their community or can call a settlement agency. But it is very hit and miss.”
One place people can go is to the website of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) at

While this can help newcomers find doctors who speak their language, often these doctors are not taking new patients, Janczur said.

And the search can be very hard for those in the communities that are newer to Canada, said Calla. For example, the CPSO website has dozens of listings for Toronto doctors taking new patients who speak Mandarin. But there are no listings for doctors in the city who are taking new patients and speak Ethiopian, Indonesian or Somalian.

Calla says it can take a whole generation before a community like these can start producing doctors of their own. With a doctor shortage in Ontario, this has groups like the Foreign Trained Doctors Association asking the Ontario Medical Association to make it easier for foreign-trained doctors to work in Canada.

“There are a lot of professional doctors who come from other countries with good qualifications,” he said. “Certainly we’re not saying, ‘just let them practice,’ but they should be given the opportunity to qualify,” Calla said.

Meanwhile, thousands of newcomers in the GTA may be gettig poor health care because they cannot find anyone who speaks their language.

Dr. Meb Rashid, one of the doctors who works through interpreters at Access Alliance, said mistakes or even lack of care altogether are the possible results of having poor access to health care in your own language.

“There are people who just will not be able to seek out health care if they do not have access to people who speak their language,” He said. “It is crucial. Quite a few people say they would not have survived if it had not been for this clinic.”
Eight-five per cent of diagnosis is from what has happened to you in the past, he said. So if a doctor cannot get a good history on a patient because of language, the health care can be poor, he said.

“We are left to muddle through and it is patch-work,” he said.

Mental health is also a big issue for new immigrants and refugees, Tao said. “There is a loss of status, a loss of income and uncertainty,” she said. “Because of their economic situation, very few are able to engage in social activities and they are (all alone).”

Meanwhile, help can be found in many languages at the Ontario Ministry of Health offices, said John Letherby, spokesperson for the ministry.

But he suggests people have a friend who speaks English call ahead to make sure someone can be there who speaks their language when they arrive.

For more information on Access Alliance call 416-324-8677.

For more information on COSTI call 416-658-1600.

For more information on the Woodgreen Community Centre or Immigrant Services, call 416-462-3110.

Multilingual GTA Family Doctors Accepting New Patients

Click here for information about finding a doctor that speaks your language in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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