Kiwis could start dying if dental care isn't Government-funded - doctors

Doctors at Christchurch Hospital say if adult dental care isn't funded soon, then people may start dying from dental infections.

There's been a nearly 400 percent increase in intensive care dental admissions at the hospital.

Three of New Zealand's top public health professionals - an intensive care specialist, a dental specialist, and an oral surgeon - are speaking out about dental problems for the first time.

Geoff Shaw works in intensive care at Christchurch Hospital. He says if sufferers aren't treated, they will die. 

It's backed by maxillofacial surgeon Jason Erasmus - who says "most" of his patients are in intensive care - and dental specialist Juliet Gray, who says New Zealand has normalised a "very abnormal, almost inhumane situation".

The situation is that dental problems are becoming so severe they're now life-threatening. Doctors are seeing blocked airways, sepsis, and abscesses in the brain, heart and lungs.

"To me it feels like, many days, that's all I am doing: draining pus," says Erasmus. 

His dental workload is skyrocketing up from 252 patients last year to 337 this year already - that's a 33 percent increase. 

In Christchurch's intensive care a decade ago, five people were admitted yearly with dental problems. But they've had 24 in the last year - indicating a 380 percent increase

"You can spend weeks or even months in hospital rehabilitating from those severe infections... in some cases patients will be left with permanent disability," says Shaw. 

And the doctors believe the root cause is being missed.

Gray says a lack of questioning means vital information slips through the cracks. 

"We don't ask what caused the lung abscess, what caused the infection and so those things are lost," she told Newshub.

National has no policies that would help adults with dental care.

Labour would help beneficiaries by increasing emergency grants from $300 to $1000 - but there would still be no help for most adults.

Making it free for everyone would cost upwards of $800 million a year, but documents obtained by Newshub show a more targeted package - including making it free up to the age of 27 - could be as little as $150 million.

The alternative is DIY dentistry - and Gray says it's on the rise. 

"The most common instrument for people to use at home is a screwdriver - the other thing we see a lot of now is people taking accidental paracetamol overdoses," she said. 

There's also a potential shortage of ICU beds if more and more are needed for people with dental infections.

Shaw says it's not just a problem for poorer people. 

"His is not just a problem of poorer people who cannot afford dental treatment, it's a problem for the whole country to think about."

An entirely preventable problem that the doctors believe will worsen to the point where someone may die.