Dental expert says dental care in NZ treated like 'luxury', calls for funding overhaul

A leading dental expert has joined former prime minister Helen Clark in calling for more funding to make accessing a dentist more affordable, saying dental health is being treated like a luxury.

Otago University Associate Professor Jonathan Broadbent says a survey found about half NZ's population put off necessary dental treatment because of the cost. Source: 1 NEWS

Head of Preventative and Restorative Dentistry at Otago University, Associate Professor Jonathan Broadbent, says the last national dental survey found that about half of New Zealand's population had put off dental treatment they knew they needed because of the cost.

A leading researcher says dental care is being treated like a luxury. Source: 1 NEWS

Dr Broadbent told 1 NEWS the average hourly rate for a dentist in New Zealand is $460 and with the minimum wage of $15.75, "it's basically a full week's work to earn enough money to get one hour with a dentist".

"I believe that dentistry is a case study of what happens when we commercialise healthcare. Dental problems cause pain, embarrassment, worry just like any other heath problem, yet we set dentistry apart from other health problems," he said.

"It's a problem to treat dental health like it's a luxury. It's on you to sort it out, even if you can't afford it."

Former PM Helen Clark tweeted last week that she hears "very concerning reports of those who end up with very serious dental problems because they cannot afford regular checkups and small problems end up as big ones. Surely #WINZ could be more helpful? A stitch in time saves nine".

Helen Clark has urged the government to make dental care fully funded, but Dr Assil Russel says that would be a hard task. Source: Breakfast

Ms Clark went on to say: "Time for a major government initiative on the right to dental care."

Dr Broadbent says there's a need to re-look at the way dental care is funded. 

"With such a high proportion of the population having difficulty in paying for the treatment, we need to look at alternative ways to cover the costs of care," he said.

Dr Broadbent said he personally agrees with putting a tax on "unhealthy behaviours like excess sugar consumption" as one possible means to help fund dental services, but added "it's something that the politicians will have to look at very closely".

On TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning, founder of charity Revive a Smile Dr Assil Russel suggested a government initiative to raise the current age of free dental care for those under 18, to 20 or 21, or to allow WINZ to fund more dental care for individuals. 

Dr Russel said she sees life threatening infections and people who have lived with dental problems for years because they're unable to afford care.