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Sarah Donovan, Department of Public Health

Sarah_Donovan_profilePhD, BMid

Research Fellow/Professional Practice Fellow

Teaches PUBH744 Healthy Public Policy

Contact details 

Tel +64 4 385 5541 (ext 4638)
Fax +64 4 389 5319

Research interests and activities

Sarah is a Sociologist with a focus on the social determinants of health, and has also worked as a midwife. Her doctoral research (2010) focused on prenatal screening for Down Syndrome in New Zealand, and investigated women's experience of prenatal screening decisions, and the relationship of this experience to cultural norms of ‘health’, and to principles of individual choice and informed consent.

Sarah is part of team funded in 2018-2019 by Lotteries Health to undertake mixed methods research to investigate the reasons why New Zealand’s breastfeeding rates are poor and declining, particularly for Māori, and to work with stakeholders across multiple sectors to identify solutions. The project includes interviews with new mothers and health sector stakeholders to identify structural (rather than educational) barriers to successful breastfeeding, and will also stock take all currently available quantitative data on breastfeeding in NZ in order to identify data gaps. This work will feed into the Ministry of Health refresh of the National Breastfeeding Strategy.

In 2017 Sarah undertook a qualitative study on the personal and professional impact of life disrupting menstrual pain on New Zealand/Aotearoa women aged 18+. Other recent research includes analysing data on age of first menstruation in New Zealand and media advocacy work on the issue of period poverty (particularly among school aged girls - see media coverage) . She has presented at the first ever national hui on period poverty in November 2019, and at a parliamentary forum announcing government action on this issue.

In the department of Primary Care and General Practice she is a member of Wellington Interprofessional Teaching Initiative (WITI) (Louise Beckingsale, Karen Colman, Ben Darlow, Sarah Donovan, Ben Gray, Eileen McKinlay, Hazel Neser, Meredith Perry, Sue Pullon, Christine Wilson) and involved in research on the social organisation of clinical work with the use of the Communities of Clinical Practice tool.

Other professional interests include:

  • Breastfeeding as a public health good
  • Prevalence and morbidity of menstrual pain in New Zealand
  • Period poverty (addressing barriers to access to menstrual management products)
  • Inter Professional Education (IPE) for trainee health professionals
  • Barriers to the uptake of social security entitlements (i.e. state benefits) in NZ by vulnerable and low-income citizens
  • The public health role of midwives
  • Public health and economic benefits of promoting low-intervention, low-cost approaches to birth (including stand-alone birthing centres, and homebirth)

Sarah teaches PUBH744 Healthy Public Policy in the Diploma of Public Health.

Sarah is a member of the Electronic data for Mental health research (EleMent) group: Te Raraunga Hinengaro. EleMent are a multidisciplinary research group bringing together expertise in epidemiology, public health and data science with clinical and lived experience of mental distress. The group use routinely collected electronic data from health and other sources to understand the distribution and determinants of mental health and mental distress, with a focus is on making the best use of available information to improve the mental health of New Zealanders.


Journal article

Dew, K. & Donovan, S. Vaccines, polarising divides and the role of public health. Critical Public Health, 30(1) (Forthcoming).

McKinlay, E., Brown, M.,Beckinsale, L., Burrow, M., Coleman, K., Darlow, B., Donovan, S et al.(2019) Forming inter-institutional partnerships to offer pre-registration IPE: a focus group study. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 21 November 2019.

Donovan, S. & Telfar-Barnard, L. (2019) Age of first menstruation in New Zealand: findings from the first ever national-level data and implications for age-appropriate education and support. New Zealand Medical Journal, 132:1500.

McKinlay, E., Beckingsale, L. Donovan, S., Darlow, B. et al (2018). Key strategies for first-time interprofessional teachers and those developing new interprofessional education programs. Journal of Research in Interprofessional Practice & Education, 8(1).

Ombler, J., & Donovan, S. (2018). Rejuvenating radical potential through transdisciplinarity: Art and public health. Counterfutures, (5), 165-192.

Coleman, K., McKinlay, E., Darlow, B., Beckinsale, L., Donovan, S., et al, (2018). Learning with, from and about each other: Developing interprofessional education programmes. Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Sciences, 49(1), S12.

Coombs, M., Fullbrook, P., Donovan, S., Tester, R. (2015). Certainty and uncertainty about end of life care nursing practices in New Zealand Intensive Care Units: a mixed methods study.
Australian Critical Care.

Darlow, B., Donovan, S., Coleman, K., McKinlay, E., Beckingsale, L., Gallagher, P., ... & Pullon, S. (2016). What makes an interprofessional education programme meaningful to students? Findings from focus group interviews with students based in New Zealand. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 30(3), 355-361.

Darlow, B., Coleman, K., McKinlay, E., Donovan, S. et al . (2015) The positive impact of interprofessional education: a controlled trial to evaluate a programme for health professional students. BMC Medical Education. 2015.

Coleman, K., Darlow, B., McKinlay, E., Beckingsale, L., Donovan, S., Stanley et al. (2014). Does Interprofessional Education Make a Difference to Students’ Attitudes to Practice? Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Sciences 45: 344-345.

Shaw, R. & Donovan, S. (2010). Phenomenological sociology and the sociology of bioethics: two New Zealand studies. New Zealand Women’s Studies Journal, 24(2):40-53.

Donovan, S. (2010). What is the future of public engagement with Bioethics in New Zealand? Sociolog,

Donovan, S. (2006). Inescapable burden of choice? The impact of a culture of prenatal screening on women’s experiences of pregnancy. Health Sociology Review, 15(4):397-405.

Donovan, S. (2006). Experts at Ethics? New Zealand Sociology, 21(1):145-151.


Simmonds, S. and Donovan, S. (2016) University of Otago Public Health Postgraduate Programme Evaluation 2015. University of Otago, Wellington (February 2016)

Taylor, H., Donovan, S., Hudson-Doyle, E., Johnson, D., Henry, D., Jensen, S. Sutton, J. & Parsons, V. (2012). Public perceptions of the NZ fire rescue services carried out during the Christchurch earthquake. Joint Centre for Disaster Research, GNS Science/Massey University.

Book Review

Donovan, S. (2011). Book review - “Abortion: then and now” Sites: Journal of Social Anthropology & Cultural Studies, 8(1):149-153.

Conference abstract

Donovan, S. (2018) Hidden burdens for women and girls: why is menstrual management not on the public health agenda in OECD countries?
Nurses Organisation of New Zealand conference, 17-19 May, Blenheim.

Donovan, S. (2017) Hidden burdens for women and girls: why is menstrual management not on the public health agenda in OECD countries?
6th International Conference on Epidemiology & Public Health, 2017, Paris, France.

Coombs, M., Tester, R., Donovan, S., de Vries, K & Fullbrook, P. (2014). Areas of uncertainty and difference in attitudes about end of life nursing care practices: an international comparison (conference abstract, proceedings in publication) European Society of Intensive Care Medicine (ESICM) conference 2014, (Barcelona).

McKinlay, E., Beckinsale, L. Coleman, K., Darlow, B., Gray, B., Neser, H., Stanley, J., Pullon, S., Gallagher, P., Perry, M & Donovan, S. (2014) “Does Interprofessional Education make a difference to students’ attitudes?” (abstract) New Zealand Interprofessional Health Conference 2014, Auckland.

McKinlay, E., Beckingsale, L., Coleman, K., Darlow, B., Donovan, S., Gallagher, P., Gray, B., Neser, H., Perry, M., Pullon, S. (2014). Connecting the silos: Developing interprofessional teaching teams and resources to educate undergraduates for long-term conditions management. Proceedings of the Australian Long-term Conditions Conference, 2014, Auckland.


Ombler, J., Donovan, S. (2018) What does art have to do with public health, and how can they work together? Public Health Expert Blog.