Your rights to health care

“The right to health for all people means that everyone should have access to the health services they need, when and where they need them, without suffering financial hardship. No one should get sick and die just because they are poor, or because they cannot access the health services they need.”  

– Dr. Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization

In Canada, we have a tax-funded, public health care system. This means residents can get the health care services they need. That’s true in every province and territory. And you don’t have to worry about whether or not you can pay. Learn about your rights to health care in British Columbia.

What you should know

BC residents have access to publicly funded health care

In BC, many health care costs are covered by the Medical Services Plan (MSP). This is the government health insurance program for eligible BC residentsPharmaCare is another government program. It pays for certain prescription drugs, medical supplies, and pharmacy services for eligible BC residents.

To qualify for MSP, you have to make BC your home. You also have to be living in BC — that is, be physically present in the province — generally for at least six months in a calendar year. (Or five months if you’re a Canadian citizen or permanent resident resident in BC but on vacation outside of BC.) Tourists and visitors aren’t considered residents.

You must also meet certain criteria, including being one of the following:

  • a Canadian citizen or permanent resident,

  • an international student with a study permit,

  • a worker with a work permit for six months or longer, or

  • a person who has applied for permanent resident status and been issued a permit on medical grounds.

Your dependents, such as a spouse or child, may also qualify for MSP coverage if they meet the same residency requirements. 

If you’re a status First Nations person living in BC, you also qualify for MSP.

If you’re a new or returning resident to BC, it may take up to three months to get MSP coverage. That’s because there’s a waiting period of:

  • the rest of the month in which you started living in BC, and

  • another two months.

Health Insurance BC manages medical coverage under MSP. It also manages Pharmacare. You can contact them for more information about enrolling in these programs.

Your right to access medically necessary services at no cost

If you’re an eligible BC resident, you can access health care services. But it’s not automatic. You must apply for MSP. Once you’re enrolled, MSP will cover the cost of medical benefits. For some — including those receiving income, hardship, and disability assistance — MSP will also cover the cost of supplementary benefits

Medical benefits are medically required services that doctors and other health care professionals provide. These include things like treatment by your doctor and x-rays. 

Supplementary benefits are different from medical benefits. These are services provided by other health care practitioners. Examples include physiotherapy and massage therapy.

Some health services in BC aren’t covered under MSP. For example, if you call an ambulance to take you to a hospital, you’ll be charged a user fee. (But much of this fee is subsidized as long as you’re covered by MSP and have a valid BC Services Card.) 

If you aren’t sure whether MSP will cover the services you need, take a look at the BC government page about benefits. Or ask your physician or health care provider for more information.

Applying for MSP

BC residents can apply for MSP online at Or you can apply by completing the MSP application for enrolment form and mailing it to Health Insurance BC. If you’re a status First Nations person resident in BC, you should apply for MSP coverage through the First Nations Health Authority.

The general rule under the law in BC is: a doctor (or another health care provider) can treat you only if you agree, or consent, to the treatment. To be valid, your consent has to be freely given and informed. This means that you need to have all the important facts and medical information you need to make a decision about your treatment. 

To get your informed consent, your health care provider must tell you:

  • what your illness or health condition is (what they have diagnosed you with),

  • what treatment or health care they suggest,

  • how the treatment may help you (what the benefits are),

  • what the risks of the treatment are, and

  • what other treatment options there are (including not getting any treatment).

You have the right to ask questions and get answers about the proposed treatment. Ultimately, you can agree to the treatment or you can choose an alternative. You can do that for any reason — moral, religious, or something else. You also have the right to be involved in all decision-making and to have your health care decision respected.

You can consent to health care in different ways — in writing, by speaking, or through a gesture (like nodding or shaking your head).

To give informed consent, you must be a mentally capable adult. (Different rules apply to children; see children and consent to health care.)

If you’re mentally incapable or can’t give consent for other reasons, another person can make health care decisions for you. This person may be your representative under a representation agreement you’ve made. Or they may be a person called a committee. This is someone whom the court has appointed to step in and be your legal voice if you’re mentally incapable of acting for yourself. They can, for example, make health care decisions for you.

What if you don’t have a representative or a committee? Or what if you’re too ill or otherwise unable to make a decision about your health care? In those situations, your health care provider has to choose a temporary substitute decision-maker based on a priority order set out in the law. Your spouse is typically first in line, followed by adult children, and then your parents, and so on.

Someone who’s making health care decisions for you has to discuss them with you if that’s possible. If it isn’t, they must follow any directions you gave while you were capable.

In an urgent or emergency situation, you can be given health care without consent. But there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, when: 

  • someone is available who is authorized to and capable of consenting to health care for you, or

  • the health care provider is reasonably sure that you (while mentally capable) indicated you didn’t want health care in a particular situation. 

An example of the second point is if you carry a card saying you refuse to have a blood transfusion. If the health care provider sees that card while treating you in a medical emergency, they have to respect your wishes.

Your right to refuse health care (and to change your decision)

As mentioned above, you have the right to give consent to health care. You also have the right to refuse medical treatment for any reason (including moral, religious, or other reasons). You can refuse life support or other health care, such as a blood transfusion, even if it means you will die. But to refuse treatment, you must be mentally capable of making that decision. And your refusal has to be freely given and informed.

You also have the right to change your mind. That is, you can decide at any time to stop some or all of your treatment. But you can’t withdraw your consent to treatment you’re receiving if you’re mentally incapable.

If a doctor isn’t sure whether you’re mentally capable or not, they can have a medical expert assess you. 

Your right to your medical information

You’ve probably noticed that when you meet with a health care professional, they’re listening to you and making notes. This is because health care professionals are required to keep medical records about your meeting with them. Their records have to:

  • be dated,

  • describe the service you were given,

  • be accurate and kept private, and

  • be stored safely and securely.

The actual medical records belong to the doctor, hospital, or other place that made them. But the information in the records belongs to you. 

Getting your medical information

BC has privacy and access to information laws (this law and this one). Under BC laws, you have the right to your medical information.

You can ask your health care provider or a public health care body (such as a hospital) to see your medical records. You’ll likely need to make your request in writing. (This typically involves filling out a form.) Though it may take some time, you should be shown the records you want. Or at least given the information in them. (If you want a copy, you may be charged a fee.)

If you can’t get medical records from your health care provider, you can contact the regulatory body that oversees them. For example, if your doctor won’t release your records, you can contact the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC for help. You can also contact BC's Privacy Commissioner.

If a hospital refuses to let you see your records, they must tell you why. If you disagree with the hospital’s decision, you can ask the Privacy Commissioner to review it.

We further explain these steps in accessing your medical records.

Your right to be free from discrimination

Your health care provider must treat you by making decisions to the best of their medical knowledge and professional experience. They can’t make decisions based on any of these personal characteristics:

  • your race, colour, ancestry, Indigenous identity, or place of origin

  • your age

  • your sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression

  • your marital or family status

  • your religion

  • any physical or mental disability (though this one is tricky; a health care provider can consider a disability in exercising their medical judgment)

If you’re treated differently — or are refused a health care service or treatment — because of any of these personal characteristics, this is discrimination. It’s against BC’s Human Rights Code

You have the right to be free from discrimination when receiving health care. If you believe you’ve been discriminated against, you can file a complaint within one year with the BC Human Rights Tribunal. The tribunal can hold a hearing to decide if there was discrimination. 

For more, see our guidance on discrimination when accessing health care in BC.

  • Reviewed for legal accuracy in January 2021
  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Time to read: 8 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

Dionne Liu, Harper Grey LLP

Dionne Liu

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