Super gluing teeth back together, pulling teeth with vice grips and DIY fillings are among the horror jobs attempted by people attempting to avoid expensive dental costs.

But dentists say running a surgery is expensive and dentistry cannot be done safely for much cheaper than they charge.

Horror stories of DIY dentistry include a Rotorua man with impacted wisdom tooth who took a video of himself taking a drill to his teeth after he could not get necessary care through the public health system.

Ministry of Health data for the 2017/2018 period showed an average of 46.8 per cent of adults in New Zealand aged 15 and older with natural teeth had visited a dental health care worker in the last year.

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Ngāi Te Rangi chief executive Paora Stanley said he was "acutely aware" of the impact of the high cost of dental work on the poor and vulnerable, and said poverty and non-fluoridated water contributed to the issue.

He was concerned about the lengths people went to relieve their pain, such as "pulling their own bloody teeth out with pliers".

He had also heard of attempts to super glue a broken tooth back together, which was later pulled using vice grips.

"It ended in tears."

Ngāi Te Rangi chief executive Paora Stanley has heard of people using super glue and pliers in DIY dental jobs. Photo / File
Ngāi Te Rangi chief executive Paora Stanley has heard of people using super glue and pliers in DIY dental jobs. Photo / File

The iwi had aspirations to launch a mobile dental clinic but Stanley said it should not be the responsibility of the iwi to clean up the mess left by a lack of education and healthcare access.

Te Tuinga Whānau social services manager Pikiteora Russell said the cost affected all people but lower-income families felt the pinch the most.

NZ Dental Association president Dr Bill O'Connor and NZ Dental and Oral Health Therapists Association chairman Arish Naresh both said the high cost of dentist visits were a consequence of the expense of running a private surgery.

O'Connor said DIY jobs were uncommon and dentists were either forced to meet the high cost of operating a surgery or run the risk of providing poor quality care.

"You can't do it much cheaper than what it's been done," he said.

The association supported a government-subsided system.

Arish Naresh said a dental surgery would cost at least $250,000 to set up and the running expenses were high to meet compliance.

He heard of people attempting DIY jobs and called for an update of the national oral health strategy which was created 11 years ago.

"It is quite sad that we have things like this happening in a developed country."

Health Minister David Clark told the NZME there was "huge unmet need in dental care" - but there would not be significant reform this side of the 2020 general election.

"Longer term, I do have ambitions to make dental care more affordable and accessible. However, it's unlikely we'll get significant change over the line with that this term."

Bay of Plenty District Health Board head of department for oral health Rudi Johnson said demand was high for publicly-funded services and had grown over the last five years.

The DHB contracted local dentists to provide emergency adult dental care and providers to deliver basic dental care for some community mental health clients.

The hospital-based funded care available to adults included dental care for adults with medically complex issues or those with special needs.

According to Ministry of Health figures, the Bay of Plenty DHB spent $11.9 million on oral health services including $277,000 on emergency dental care for low-income adults in the year ended June 2018.

Ministry of Social Development Bay of Plenty regional commissioner Mike Bryant said $300 grants were often available for urgent dental treatment which usually did not need to be paid back.

Tauranga Budget Advisory Service manager Shirley McCombe said the service had clients who tried to treat their own dental problems.

People did not budget for dental work so dental issues were ignored until they became a crisis, she said.

Expense a hindrance

Tauranga-based dentist Dr Sam Paterson said people delayed visits out of apprehension of the expense, which ironically made it more expensive in the long run.

Patients who visited every six months generally never had a costly bill, he said.

He recently treated someone who had attempted a DIY job by buying filling material online for $60 and packing it into the tooth herself.

If she had come straight to the dentist she would have paid around $150 for a fix, he said.

From a business point of view, he knew of clinics that needed to earn $1200 a day to break even.

He said some people would struggle to pay dentist fees and government subsidies would help lower-income people.

East Bay Dental Centre dentist John Twaddle said it was an "urban myth" that people often pulled their own teeth.

The Community Services Card discount was utilised by those needing it but sometimes it was used by people who appeared to not need it, he said.

"You would treat them at a lower cost and then see them drive away in a Mercedes ... it's frustrating."

A representative of Complete Dental, who wished to remain anonymous, said clients with Community Service Cards did not have issues paying meeting their fees.

They did not want to comment on other dentists' pricing.


The cost of dental work in Bay of Plenty and Waikato
• Examination only: $68
• Single tooth extraction: $215
• Each additional tooth taken: $132
• Root filling: $711
• One surface filling: $144
• Composite crown: $406
• Hygienist - half-hourly rate: $118
Source: New Zealand Dental Association