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Health Management & Informatics Research (HMA/HMI): Search Tips & Strategies

Resources for health informatics research

Page Outline

There are many ways to search.  Scoll on down and find the tips that work for you & your project. 

This page covers:

  • Combining your terms & Boolean
  • Subject Terms & Keywords
  • Cited Reference Searching
  • Additional Tips

Scroll down to see more!

Combining Terms & Boolean

Start with one concept at a time.  This technique lets you mix and match search sets.  When you have multiple concepts it’s easy to end up with nothing.  So, start with one concept and add the others one at a time.  You might find that you can only use two concepts together out of three.  You might need to mix and match them in different combinations.

Combine terms with OR to get more results.   When there isn't much on your topic or the MeSH term is new, combine terms with OR to find the most articles.  A search in Ovid MEDLINE on electronic patient records - a new MeSH term -  might look like: 

Electronic Health Records/ or electronic patient

  • the slash / means that the term is searched as a MeSH term
  • the '.mp.' means that this term is searched as a keyword.

Combine terms with AND to get fewer results & to bring topics together.  To combine the search on electronic patient records with the topic of medical errors, you need to combine the two searches with an AND.  In MEDLINE, it looks like: 

1)    Electronic Health Records/ or electronic patient          
2)    exp Medical Errors/                                                             
3)    1 and 2                 

You can also type it out in one line like this:   (Electronic Health Records/ OR electronic patient records) AND exp Medical Errors

  • the 'exp' before Medical Errors/ means that you ‘exploded’ on the MeSH term 'Medical Errors' to include more specific subject terms (see below for more on explode). 
  • the parenthesis () make sure that the OR'd terms are combined before the AND.  Just like algebraic questions.
  • the AND & OR don't need to be capitalized.  Just makes it easier for us to read them.
What does Boolean mean anyway?   George Boole was a mathematician who had the happy thought that you can combine sets with AND, OR, NOT.  Boolean Logic is named after him.   Simple as that.

Subject Terms & Keywords

Spell out terms.  You will get better results when you type out abbreviations & acronyms.  Keying in electronic health records instead of EHR will generally net you more matching MeSH terms, more keywords found.  Ovid MEDLINE does a good job of matching acronyms to MeSH but doesn't always succeed. PubMed doesn't even try. (Check the Details box.)  So, type 'em out.

Use available subject terms.   In MEDLINE, for example, searching 'computerized decision support' takes you to 'Decision Making, Computer-Assisted' as a MeSH.  This usually gets you more results and also allows you to use the Explode feature. 

Explode when using subject terms.   If you search in Ovid MEDLINE & look at the subject term 'Decision Making, Computer-Assisted', you’ll see that you can check a box labeled ‘explode.’   This will get you additional specific subjects.  In this case, it gets you the following 10 subjects.  This is like getting 10 more file folders of articles which are NOT included in the broader term 'Decision Making, Computer-Assisted'.  Note: PubMed does this automatically.
Decision Making, Computer-Assisted
            Diagnosis, Computer-Assisted
                        Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted
                                    Radiographic Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted
            Therapy, Computer-Assisted
                        Drug Therapy, Computer-Assisted
                        Radiotherapy, Computer-Assisted
                                    Radiotherapy, Conformal
                                                Radiotherapy, Intensity-Modulated
                                    Radiotherapy Planning, Computer-Assisted
                        Surgery, Computer-Assisted

Look for additional terms to search on in titles, abstracts, assigned subject terms, and full text of articles.   You might find that there are additional terms that you can search on.  Not everyone in a specific specialty or field uses the same terms when writing up articles.  Trick is to find the terms that they do use.  Once you find the terms, re-do the search.  This is another to break up your searches into separate topics.  You can then mix and match 'em without having to retype everything.

Check the subject terms used by the database/search engine you are in.   Each one has a different focus and therefore, can use a different term for the same idea.  You can also use this as a way to find additional terms that you can add into your search.

Cited Reference Searching

You can find good articles by looking at References and Cited by.  

References are the articles and documents listed in an article's bibliography or reference list.  This will take you into the past, to older articles.   

You can also search into the future by looking at Citing articles or Cited by links in search engines such as CINAHL, Scopus, or Google Scholar. Say you have an article from 2000 and you want something more current. You can search it by title in Scopus.  If the article is found, check to see if there is a  number on the far right under the Cited column.  Clicking on that number will take you to the more current articles that used the original one in their footnote section.

Additional Tips

Use multiple databases/search engines.  There will be overlap in what you find, but each will have something unique.   The following should be helpful for most if not all searches.  All of these are available off of our website either under quick links or All Resources:

               MEDLINE or PubMed (basically the same database, just different search interface)

Extrapolation is key.  Keep in mind that you may have to pull pieces of information from various articles to make your point.  You may not – probably won’t – find the perfect article that sums up your position.  (If you do find that perfect article, it actually means that you should pick another topic as someone has beaten you to the idea!)

Take notes as you go.  It’s really hard to find or document things after the fact.  (I’ve found this out the hard way!)  So tract where you search, the terms you use, and the citations you find as you go.  Paper or online doesn’t matter.  Just track it.  Also, if an article looks *remotely* useful, make note of it.  It’s always easier to cross it off later than try to find it again.  (Sometimes you can’t find it again.  I’ve learned that the hard way too.)


MeSH = Medical Subject Headings.  MeSH is an example of a Controlled Vocabulary.

MeSH terms are added to the citations in MEDLINE (Ovid or PubMed) to enhance retrieval.  This is, in addition to searching the terms that authors' used in their titles and abstracts, you can also search on the MeSH terms assigned (or tagged) by the indexers at the National Library of Medicine. 

MeSH terms are grouped by topic or subject, e.g. Anatomy; Heart Diseases; Occupational Groups.   The benefit of this is that you can "explode" on a broad MeSH term to broaden your search by include all of the more specific terms.  Great way to get a class of things without having to key them all in. 

MeSH terms can be narrowed by using subheadings.   The subheading terms let you specify which facet of an idea that you want.  e.g. economic; manpower; history; statistics and numerical data.

MeSH terms can also be narrowed down by selecting Focus (Ovid) or Major MeSH (PubMed).  Focus means that the MeSH you select is the main idea of the article, not simply a minor idea.

It can take from 1-3 months for a citation in MEDLINE to be tagged with a MeSH term.  We recommend that you use both MeSH and keywords if you are looking for the most current information.

To search the MeSH database, go here:

For all things MeSH, go here (inc. tutorials & updates):