Once you have refined your question to help inform your search terms (see PICO under Step 1 of the Evidence Cycle – Identify ) you can begin the next step of developing your search strategy and accessing the right evidence.
If you are new to evidence searching, or want to improve your skills, you may wish to ask for help from a specialist service such as your local NHS library. Otherwise, it’s possible to conduct evidence searches yourself, and there is more information below about how to do this.
Using a local specialist service
NHS Knowledge and Library Service
For NHS staff, the NHS Knowledge and Library Service is available to help. As well as being a gateway to reliable evidence and knowledge, your local NHS library staff can conduct literature searches and sometimes provide training on how to find resources and keep up to date with research in your field. Contact details for accessing the library service in your area can be found here.
Conducting your own search?
To gain access to databases containing references to thousands of electronic journals and online resources free of charge, you need to register with OpenAthens. All staff in NHS organisations, GP practices, ICBs and commissioning support agencies, local authority public health staff and some voluntary sector providers of NHS care are eligible for an account with OpenAthens, plus some people in other roles linked to the NHS. See here for a full list of authorised NHS England OpenAthens users.
You can see which journals and databases you would have access to with an NHS OpenAthens account here. And NHS England provides detailed information on the different databases as well as the various interfaces for accessing these in a set of resources for advanced searching. To register for an NHS England OpenAthens account, go to https://openathens.nice.org.uk/. For NHS staff, your local Library Service may also be able to help with registering.
For staff in local authority public health (LAPH) teams there is support from the UK Health Security Agency library service. This includes access to a range of resources, including UK Health Security Agency subscribed e-resources (e-journals, EBSCO Discovery and BrowZine), as well as information on training and access to further support from the library service.
Tip: If you work for a LAPH Team select ‘Public health staff in England’ as your organisation when registering for an OpenAthens account.
You may also benefit from getting in touch with a local Health Integration Team to see whether a team has an interest in your area of work, and can point you towards relevant research.
Performing your search
In identifying evidence, you can see how to form a well-structured search question (using PICO). That step will help you to narrow down some search terms. Before you begin your search, you might want to pick up some more tips in this 10 minute podcast taking you through the nuts and bolts of constructing a search strategy. (Acknowledgement: ARC West/Sarah Dawson – Information Specialist)
The US National Library of Medicine provides a short tutorial explaining how to generate appropriate search terms for PubMed, the public interface of Medline, one of the largest literature databases in the health field. NHS England Knowledge and Library Services also provides links to guidance on performing a search using the common interfaces EBSCO, OVID and ProQuest.
If you would like to take a more in-depth look at the techniques of literature searching, there is a free online course on the NHS E-Learning platform. This gives a step-by-step guide to finding information and developing effective searching skills. It comprises seven modules of 10-20 minutes each and is free to access without creating an account.
Looking for grey literature
Depending on your topic and the time you have available, it may also be important to search for ‘grey’ literature. This is the kind of evidence that isn’t published in journals or books, things like reports, regulatory documents, or perhaps unpublished theses. Although it isn’t published commercially in the same way as other literature, it can still be catalogued. These are some useful grey literature sources:
- Electronic Theses Online Service (EThOS) – British Library
- DART – Europe e-theses Portal
- Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD) (Global)
- WHO Library Database (WHOLIS) – Documents and Reports
- World Bank – Documents and Reports
- National Grey Literature Collection – funded by Health Education England
You can also use a general Google Search and limit to a particular web site e.g. to search only the World Health Organisation website, type into Google: ‘health promotion obesity site:who.int’. ‘Site’ here relates to the domain you are searching, so for example, you can switch site to ‘gov.uk’ to repeat this search to find documents produced by the UK Government.
Once you have completed your search, the next step is always to critically appraise your evidence.