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Paediatricians in Canada: Frequently asked questions

What is a paediatrician?

Paediatricians are doctors who specialize in child and youth health. After medical school, they train for at least 4 more years in the care of babies, children, and youth.

Many paediatricians specialize in a specific area of child and youth health. They are called subspecialists. Some examples are paediatric cardiologists (focusing on heart health), paediatric surgeons, paediatric allergists, neonatologists (caring for sick newborns or premature babies), and developmental paediatricians. There are many others.

Canadian paediatricians practice in many different ways:

  • Some paediatricians do what is called “consulting care.” They see patients who have been referred to them by other doctors for help to diagnose and treat more serious problems.
  • Some provide first contact care (primary care) in the community. This means they see children and youth who are both well (for example, at an annual exam) and sick. They are also called community paediatricians, and may work part-time in hospitals.
  • Many paediatricians, particularly subspecialists, work in hospitals or clinics.
  • Still others teach in medical school or do research.

Many paediatricians play more than one of these roles. For instance, they may have teaching and hospital duties as well as an office practice.

Many paediatricians also promote the health needs of children and youth outside the medical setting. They talk to local media, give presentations to community or parents groups or talk to local politicians about improving services for children and youth.

What do paediatricians do?

Paediatricians provide a wide range of services for children, youth and their families. One day they might be taking care of a very sick newborn baby, while another they may be treating a teenager who’s been involved in a car accident.

Most paediatricians do one or more of the following:

  • Provide primary health care: “Primary care” is the day-to-day work of helping sick children get better, and preventing healthy children from getting sick. This includes doing physical exams, diagnosing and treating problems, providing education and advice, and giving vaccines. Paediatricians check that children are reaching their milestones—to make sure they are growing and developing as they should. If there is a problem, a paediatrician may decide that a child needs to be seen by another health professional for more specialized care.
  • Investigate, diagnose, and manage acute or chronic illness: Many paediatricians take care of children with complex medical needs. These may be long-term disabilities or conditions such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, asthma, or mental health problems. Paediatricians also provide care for the families of these children.
  • Promote health: To help children stay healthy, paediatricians provide advice on issues such as injury prevention, nutrition, physical activity, and behaviour. They do this in their offices, through the media, and by working with other health care professionals, the public, and governments.
  • Research and evaluate treatment measures: Research by paediatricians contributes to new ways of treating health problems in babies, children and youth. Paediatricians also evaluate current ways of caring for children and youth to make sure that they work best.
  • Work with other professionals: Paediatricians work with other professionals who care for children, including child protection workers, teachers and psychologists.
  • Advocate for children and youth: Paediatricians speak with community and parent groups, and talk to politicians about improving services for children.

Does every child in Canada see a paediatrician?

About 30% to 40% of children’s visits to a doctor for primary health care are to a paediatrician. Most children see a family doctor for their ongoing health care.

This is partly because there are only about 2,300 practicing paediatricians in all of Canada. Many paediatricians provide only specialty or consulting care.

Whether a paediatrician is available also depends on what region of the country you live in. In cities like Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg and in the province of Quebec, it’s common for children to see paediatricians for their routine care. But children in British Columbia, the Maritimes and areas outside large urban centres see family doctors, who refer children with more complex medical needs to paediatricians.

How do you find a paediatrician?

If you live in an area where paediatricians usually provide primary care, there are a few ways to find one:

  • Word of mouth: Ask friends and family members with children about their paediatricians.
  • Provincial colleges: Each province has a college of physicians and surgeons, which grants licenses to doctors to practice. Many of the colleges can help people find doctors accepting new patients. Our Find a Doctor page has links to these services.
  • Referrals: In some areas, you will need a referral from a family doctor to see a paediatrician.

* You may also see the word “pediatrician.” This is the American spelling. Paediatricians in the U.S. play a somewhat different role than they do in Canada as they are largely responsible for primary care of children and youth.

Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
Public Education Advisory Committee

Last Updated: September 2010