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Systematic Searching Support

Planning the Search

Consider which concepts are necessary for the search. A comprehensive search usually has 2-3 concepts combined with AND. Consult with a librarian and your team to determine which concepts to include.

Example PICO: In adult ICU settings, do noise reduction strategies improve the patient experience?

ICU Noise reduction

Patient experience

Subject and Keyword Searching

There are 2 method of searching. For reviews that demand a comprehensive approach, both methods should be used.

Subject headings: An assigned term that represents a concept. For example, any study about pressure sores found in PubMed will be assigned a Medical Subject Heading (MeSH) term pressure ulcers. A search for pressure ulcers will capture results about this concept regardless of which exact word/phrase is used. Most databases have a list of vocabulary but they are different from one another. This means that your search strategies will be different for the subject heading component for each database searched.

Keywords/phrases: Terms used in everyday language. Sometimes there is not a subject heading that represents a concept or the article is not categorized correctly. This is when keywords/phrases can capture results that a subject search may miss.

Generating Search Terms

This is usually a team process and may take a few days to months, depending on how exhaustive the search needs to be. Some tips follow:

  • start with a list of relevant records and review the subject terms assigned
  • read relevant articles and list professional terminology found in titles and abstracts that capture the concepts
  • review reviews on similar topics and read the search strategies
  • obtain feedback from your team, your librarian, and consult other subject experts
  • Use an online word processing program for keeping track of search terms
    • Example Search Term List
      Concept 1: ICU Concept 2: Noise reduction Concept 3: Patient experience


      • intensive care units
      • critical illness
      • critical care



      • Noise
      • Ear protective devices


      • patient satisfaction
      • pain
      • sleep


      • ICU
      • intensive care unit(s)


      • quiet time
      • earplugs
      • noise reduction
      • quiet interventions


      • patient report
      • patient experience
      • patient complaint(s)