Northlanders pulling out own teeth with pliers due to poor oral health

One person is admitted to intensive care every fortnight in Northland due to poor dental health.

Some people are so desperate to relieve severe tooth pain they are using pliers to pull out their own teeth because they can't afford to go to the dentist - despite working full-time. Others said oral health is so bad it's putting lives at risk. 

People in the small far north town of Kaikohe spoken to by The Hui said while cost is the biggest barrier, the problem is compounded by the fact the town hasn't had a dentist for 18 months. That's despite the town having a population of more than 4000.

To fill the gap, Auckland dental firm SmileCare operated a free temporary clinic in Kaikohe for five weeks during September and October. The clinic's dentists managed to help about 700 people in the five weeks they were in town. 

Clinic manager Doug Healey paid $30,000 out of his own pocket to help with operating costs because he saw how desperate the need was. 

He says the dental team was shocked by what they saw. 

"Within the first couple of days, the dentists were saying it's like a bomb site. There were so many broken teeth - and that was done by people pulling their own teeth out with pliers, screwdrivers," Healey told The Hui. 

The SmileCare clinic left Kaikohe for Auckland last week despite there being 1300 people still on the waiting list. The firm had hoped to return and open a permanent koha-based clinic but those hopes were dashed after SmileCare unexpectedly went into receivership this week - days after the free clinic left Kaikohe. 

SmileCare is the vision of Ngāpuhi dentist Scott Waghorn who wanted to make dentistry more accessible for Māori. All nine of Waghorn's clinics have gone into receivership but receivers PriceWaterhouseCoopers says all clinics remain open and are operating with all staff onboard. 

Customs Street SmileCare is owned by a separate company and is not in receivership.

Healey says demand at the clinic shows just how great the need is for accessible and affordable dental care in Kaikohe.

"If you live here in Kaikohe or the surrounding boundaries, to get an appointment at Kerikeri it can take up to six months. To get an appointment in Whangarei, six to eight months. 

"We've had young families come in here - they have been on the waiting list for over 12 months," he says.

Healey says only one in nine people are going to a dentist for regular checkups and most people who came to the clinic were seeking pain relief. 

"The reality is that it's time to get my teeth pulled, that's when I go to the dentist and that's a sad fact, that shouldn't be the time you go to a dentist."

For two months, working father of five Piripi Rakena lived in pain he described as nine out of 10 because he couldn't afford the $600 he was quoted to get two teeth pulled. 

"I think a lot of people, not just myself, but other people around the area are struggling financially. I'm a working parent and I know there are other working parents and we struggle to get appointments or to even be able to pay for these appointments," the Kaikohe resident says. 

The pain became so bad that Rakena was considering taking desperate measures - pulling out his own teeth.

"I was looking at doing it myself. A couple of times I sat at the dinner table maybe 1, 2 o'clock in the morning and tried to use the pliers and a cloth to pull it out - yep, that's how bad the pain gets," Rakena says.

When he heard about the free SmileCare clinic he went straight down and had two teeth pulled.

"It meant the world to me," Rakena says.

For some, the high cost of dental care has been almost fatal. Kaikohe mother of two Julie May has suffered severe tooth pain for years due to a lack of enamel on her top teeth. Earlier this year she suffered a heart attack brought on by poor dental health. 

"I panicked, I just thought about my babies," she says through tears. 

Despite working full-time she couldn't afford to go to the dentist and wasn't able to access public care, because she didn't meet the threshold for a community services card. 

"I went to doctors and they just referred me to the dentist all the time. But like I said, it's pay for the dentist, or buy food."

Recently she had 17 teeth removed at the SmileCare clinic in Kaikohe and she's no longer in pain. 

Northland District Health Board opened a dental clinic in Kaikohe on September 1 but this is only for emergency care for community card holders. There is no other dentist in town.

Healey described Northland as "the poor cousin of New Zealand" and said more funding for dental care is needed.

"You know, it's either all these other issues that are happening in the north - dental is just another issue here," he says. "Whenever people talk about what's happening in the north, it's almost like the broken record scenario and they're hearing it over and over again. [Residents] are not yelling because for the sake of yelling, they're yelling because they're hurting, people are in pain." 

He says at least four full-time dentists were needed to meet demand. 

Prime Minister-elect Jacinda Ardern has promised $176 million over four years for dental care for people on low incomes - increasing emergency grants from $300 to $1000. 

Earlier this year, Labour MP Chris Hipkins ruled out free dental care for adults, telling Newshub Nation: "Free dental care for everybody would come at a very, very, significant price tag, and I don't think in the current economic environment that's a debate we're in a position to have".

The Hui