Cash-strapped hospitals are using equipment from hardware stores in operations, putting patients at risk, a Listener investigation has found.

Leaked documents and photos reveal some district health boards have been using inferior hardware store versions of expensive surgical-grade equipment.

In other cases single-use devices are reused and other equipment is modified.

The Listener article said tools such as vice grips cost about $50 from a hardware store but $800 if bought through medical companies.

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A technician from a lower North Island hospital said cheaper tools were being damaged during the sterilisation process.

"I have seen several of these items that, after one wash, had rusted terribly or had paint chipping off," the technician told the Listener.

"I'm sure no patient wants to be operated on with items like that."

In documents released under the Official Information Act it was revealed in the past two years DHBs have identified hundreds of non-surgical-grade items and removed them from operating theatres.

These included rusty vice grips, retractors (used for holding open incisions) that were potentially carrying human tissue from patient to patient and modified equipment.

Other incidents included a saw purchased from Mitre 10 and used until the end of 2015 and $100 bolt cutters from Bunnings Warehouse used to cut plates and rods in orthopaedic surgery.

Medical grade cutters cost around $2000.

It was revealed single-use blades used in ear surgery were being sterilised and reused at a Taranaki DHB hospital.

Dangerous equipment made in-house by doctors was also discovered.

At Dunedin Hospital modified ventouse handles (suction tools used in childbirth) were removed because they were too big and posed a risk of damage to a newborn's brain.

The Listener was leaked a document that revealed a camera cable and light used in examinations of the uterus at Dunedin Hospital were deemed non-sterile.

A surgeon who spoke to the Listener said doctors at cash-strapped district health boards were trying to do their best.

The surgeon said a pair of surgical pliers to remove a wire through a bone can cost $1000.

"You can get the same thing for $30 from Mitre 10," the surgeon said.

"You wouldn't believe the mark-ups."

He said he understood the reasoning behind using a hardware quality saw once but said rust was "unacceptable".

One source told the Listener part of the problem was workplace culture.

Doctors were so used to creating and modifying equipment they "wouldn't think to buy expensive medical grade equipment".

Others wanted to use their own equipment and tools.

"I look at the medical instruments and think 'My God, this can't be used on people'."

Technicians who spoke to the Listener said regulations needed to be stricter.

"The food industry has more regulations and controls than a hospital does."

"That's how crazy it is."