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Health: Medical Search Strategies

Controlled Vocabulary

While all databases use controlled vocabulary as a tool to categorize and index similar concepts, Medical databases such as CINAHL and MEDLINE (PubMed) have created specialized controlled vocabulary tools.  

All databases index articles by SUBJECT HEADINGS. This is useful as authors can refer to a concept using differing terminology.  By searching using controlled vocabulary, you capture all relevant articles within the database.

Some of the Controlled Vocabulary tools include:

  • MeSH  (used by PubMed, MEDLINE)
  • CINAHL SH (used by CINAHL)

Here is an example of how authors use terminology that is similar to the concept of Handwashing. 

Handwashing  = Surgical Scrubbing Hand Sanitation

Hand Washing 

(two Words)

MeSH Term = Hand Disinfection    
Database Subject Headings = Hand hygiene Hand washing Hand disinfection

Boolean Operators


All terms must be included in the resulting records;

Result list will narrow with each added terms to the search

Connects two or more similar concepts (synonyms);

Tells the database to include any of the terms used;

Will broaden results

Excludes concepts from your result;

Tells the database to ignore concepts/terms that may be implied by the search terms used


College students AND test anxiety


Cloning OR Reproduction OR Genetics


Cloning NOT sheep


Search Tools: Truncation * or Wildcards ! ?

Using Truncation *

  • After the Root Word, add *
  • Tells the database to search for all variations of possible endings for that word
  • Eg:  Clean*  can include Clean, Cleans, Cleanse, Cleaning, Cleanliness
  • NOTE: you may end up with some unrelated results.  For example: Cleanse may provide spiritual results 


Using Wildcards ? !

  • Substitutes a symbol for one letter of a word
  • Eg: Wom!n could be Woman or Women
  • Eg: Colo?r could be color or colour (results contain both British or American spelling variations)

Quotations for Phrases

  • The use of quotation marks around phrases will force the database to search for that specific phrase instead of the terms separately within each article
  • Ex:
    • "genetic engineering" vs. genetic AND engineering
    • "Great Lakes" vs. great AND lakes
    • "Heart rate" vs. Heart AND rate

Tips for Effective Searching: Watch

Medical Database Research

Researching specific Medical Databases offers tools that cannot be found in the generic search (Discovery Search which islocated on the home page).  

Databases such as:

Search Strategy Worksheet

Essay Outline

Credo Reference Database

Credo Reference contains specialized encyclopedias and dictionaries that provide overviews and detailed descriptions on complex topics. 

There are three Main components:

1. Results list Specialized dictionaries and encyclopedias.

  • Key concepts are provided under each result

2. Mind Map.

  • A visual representation of the sub topics - or branches of the key term
  • Selecting any sub topic will provide more complex sub categories 

3. More Library Resources.

  • When you are ready to start searching for articles and information, resources from the library's databases your chosen topic are listed in the right hand column






A way to brainstorm and gather broad information about a 

topic before you define your research paper.


This occurs before you find specific sources (articles, websites, books)

to use in your paper.


Allows you to familiarize yourself with the topic in general.

Some benefits include:

  • Helps to develop your research question
  • Build a keyword search strategy
  • Directs your focus to learn about different aspects of your topic.

Pre-Search information can be found anywhere and depends on your focus.

Reference sources area a great place to start:

  • Textbooks can provide an overview of the topic, terminology and definitions
  • Specialized encyclopedias (check out the Credo Reference database)
  • Google and Wikipedia searches can be helpful, just make they are credible sources
    • PS  These results should not be included as part of you final research paper

PICO Model: Patient Case Research

The PICO model focuses on Patient care


(or Population)

  • Who is the treatment being delivered to? 
  • What is happening to the patient?
  • What treatment is being delivered?
  • What is happening to the patient?
  • How much better is the procedure than another?
  • What are the alternatives?
  • How is the effect measured?
  • What can be achieved?


Pre-Search: When you don't know where to start

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