Grinding broken teeth with power tools, pulling teeth with unsterilised pliers and DIY fillings are among the horror jobs locals are 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.

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 past year.

Rotorua health advocate Mike Naera said he regularly saw the impact of the high cost of dental work on the poor and vulnerable.

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"A lot of Māori can't afford dental work so their options are to remain in pain or extract their teeth themselves.

"Māori are over-represented in the lower-socio economic demographic and they sacrifice everything so they can live day to day. The consequences of paying for dental care would be sacrificing food on the table."

Naera said there was a huge concern oral health wasn't a priority among Māori families.

"It is not okay to see children with teeth falling out or kuia and kaumātua struggling with pain in their teeth because they can't afford to get help.

"The Government should be looking for more ways to better subsidise dental work so our families don't have to keep suffering."

Dentist Sherry Sembhy, from Rotorua Dentists, said she had treated a man who tried to pull out a tooth with pliers without pain relief.

He thought it would be easy as his father had done the same home job years before, she said.

She said self-dentistry was dangerous as people did not know what they were doing, did not understand the anatomy of the teeth and used unsterile tools which made the condition worse.

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Infection, abscess, swelling, broken teeth and jaws were some of the possible outcomes of the home jobs which Sembhy said could end up costing more in repairs.

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.

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

Health Minister David Clark told 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."

According to Ministry of Health figures, Lakes District Health Board spent $5.967 million on oral health services, including $211,000 on emergency dental care for low-income adults in the year to 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.

Rotorua Budget Advisory Service manager Pakanui Tuhura said while their clients had not tried or admitted to trying to treat their own dental problems, people rarely kept money aside for dental work.

"When people are budgeting they are prioritising and dental work doesn't seem to be one of those priorities."


Desperate measures

Rotorua dad Charles Llewell had such bad pain he used pliers and a drill on his teeth. Photo / supplied
Rotorua dad Charles Llewell had such bad pain he used pliers and a drill on his teeth. Photo / supplied

Charles Llewell, a solo father from Rotorua, turned to Revive a Smile, a dental charity, after an excruciating DIY effort.

The 44-year-old had impacted wisdom teeth that needed special surgery, but couldn't get help through the public system. Work and Income NZ would only loan money for X-rays. He lived in severe pain for years, which stopped him sleeping and made him grumpy around his son.

Eventually, he ripped the top off a wisdom tooth with pliers. Relief was followed by infection. His GP referred him to hospital but he still couldn't get the necessary surgery.

"I could barely talk. I'd use a pocket knife to clean out part of the tooth hole whenever I ate, otherwise food would sit on the nerve. And you get the knife in there and hit the nerve, and it would paralyse half my face."

When his son was away on holiday Llewell downed some whisky, and took a power drill to the sharp points of his left wisdom tooth. Afterwards, there was still about a quarter of the tooth remaining, and pain persisted.

Charles Llewell. Photo / supplied
Charles Llewell. Photo / supplied

He read about Revive a Smile on Facebook, and about two years ago got free treatment that gave him his life back. However, the wisdom tooth on his other side is now giving him trouble. Thankfully, he will be able to get treatment through Revive a Smile again.