• Effective Searching Strategies

    by Alan Batt. Last modified: 30/01/14


    Sometimes when using online databases it can be difficult to find the information you are looking for. Here we will deal with the topic of searching as an overall, generalised concept. Further specific information on searching individual databases is linked to in the post.

    Steps to developing an effective search strategy:

    Clarify your query

    Write a sentence to describe your topic & underline the important words & concepts

    • Is ibuprofen more effective than paracetamol at managing pyrexia in children?
    • Does compression depth matter in hands-only CPR by lay-rescuers?
    • Does wearing a Superman t-shirt under a uniform shirt make you a more clinically competent Paramedic?

    You can also break it into concepts using the PICO Model

    Patient/problem characteristics – What are the characteristics of the patient/problem? e.g. cardiac arrest, hypoglycaemia, difficult airway etc.
    Intervention being considered – What do you want to do for the patient? What is the proposed solution to the clinical problem?
    Comparison/control intervention (if any) – What is the main alternative to compare with the intervention? What is the current intervention?
    Outcome (What do you hope to accomplish, measure, or affect?)

    Compile keywords

    • Narrow terms v broad terms: EMS (broad) paramedic (narrow), paramedic practitioner (narrower), paramedic clinical guidelines (narrower)
    • Synonyms: examination, identification, assessment, diagnosis; urgent, emergency, immediate
    • Alternative spellings: paediatric v pediatric; colour v color
    • Abbreviations & Full Forms: OOHCA & Out Of Hospital Cardiac Arrest; ROSC & Return of Spontaneous Circulation
    • Related forms of words: heart, cardio, cardiac
    • Variations in terminology: physician, doctor; RGN, RN, nurse

    Combining Terms

    Use OR between synonyms & different spellings; AND to combine the different concepts in your search

    • Paramedic AND intubation – finds items that contain both terms
    • Ibuprofen OR paracetamol – finds items that contain either ibuprofen or items that contain paracetamol
    • Prehospital NOT ambulance – finds items that contain prehospital but do not contain ambulance
    • Use brackets to control the order of your search if you have multiple terms: (Cardiac OR Cardio*) AND (prehospital OR paramedic*)
    • Use a * to find all forms of a word and plurals e.g. cardio* – cardiovascular, cardiopulmonary, cardiology etc.

    Are they comprehensive enough?

    Can you think of some examples of keywords related to younger age groups?

    Sample Keywords...click to view

    Infant, toddler, child, baby, paediatric, paed*, neonate, teen, teenager, “young adult”, creche, school, grandchild, children, kid, “high school”, kids, playschool, preschool, daycare, young, boy, girl, NICU, PICU, SCBU

    Quite a lot isn’t it! See how important it is to spend time thinking of as many relevant keywords as possible? Doing this will ensure that your search will retrieve as many relevant articles as possible!


    Identify any limits to your search (age, country, dates, languages etc.)


    Decide which databases or websites you plan to use. Here are some other posts dealing with specific search techniques.

    Use subject headings

    Subject headings provide a consistent way to search where different terms or phrases may be used to express the same concept e.g. intubation, airway management, ETI

    They are standardised descriptive terms for what an article is about, and gather all articles about the same subject under a single consistent preferred heading. Many articles are potentially relevant to your search but they all use different keywords.

    For instance, doing a MeSH search on MEDLINE for cardiac arrest gives the following results (click to enlarge)


    Subjects covering cardiac arrest appear in Death, Sudden, CardiacOut-of-Hospital Cardiac Arrest – but they all appear under the heading of Heart Arrest. Use the MeSH thesaurus function on Medline to check for the correct heading to use e.g. cardiac arrest use heart arrest. On CINAHL the subject headings used are called CINAHL Headings and are relatively similar to use.

    Evaluate your results.

    Are you satisifed with the results?
    If not, how can you improve them?

    And that’s it, those are the basics of performing a comprehensive search, ensuring that you get all potentially related articles related to your query!

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    Alan Batt

    Alan Batt

    Paramedic, educator, researcher
    Alan is a critical care paramedic, paramedic educator and prehospital researcher, currently working around the world as an educator and researcher. He has previously worked and studied across Europe, North America and the Middle East. He holds a Graduate Certificate in Intensive Care Paramedic Studies, and an MSc in Critical Care. His main interests are in care of the elderly, end-of-life care, patient safety, professionalism (including role and identity), and paramedic education.

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