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Systematic Search for Health

Previously known as "Advanced Search Guide". Please update your bookmarks to new URL

Planning your search

As you start looking for literature relevant to your research question, use the Search planner to record keywords, alternative keywords and search techniques that relate to your research question.

Download the Search planner (DOC, 74KB) to help plan and document your search

Step 1: Write your finalised research question

At this stage you need to have written your finalised research question, for support on this go to the Formulating the research question on the Systematic and Systematic-like Review Toolkit .

Example Research Scenario:

For clarity we will use one scenario for all examples of the search.

You want to know what is the most effective program to increase adolescent physical activity in Australia, or whether other interventions, possibly even a multipronged approach should be implemented. You see interventions as including activity outside school, such as extra-curricular sports, walking to and from school, whole family interventions, as well as in-school programs.

Based on this scenario we have developed our research question.

Example Research Question:

What are the effective interventions to increase physical activity within the Australian adolescent population?



You must finalise your research question before you can develop your systematic search. For more information about formulating a finalised research question using PICO check out the Systematic and Systematic-like Review Toolkit guide.

Step 2: Identify concepts from your research question

To begin developing your search, you need to determine the key concepts in your research question. These key concepts form the building blocks of systematic searching.

Use the following pointers to help you identify your concepts:

  • Settings – aged care, community, ICU, Australia, home care
  • Health issues – examples could include diabetes, autism, delirium, physical immobility
  • Interventions – examples could include online app, counselling, medication management, physical therapy, mindfulness training
  • People – examples could include school-aged children, fathers, college students, elderly
  • Study type – examples could include clinical trials, observational studies, or qualitative studies on patient satisfaction, or lived experiences

Activity: Identifying concepts

Look at the topic below and highlight the words that you think are the key concepts by click on the words. Then check your answer.


Activity overview

This interactive activity shows a research question where the user can click on the words that they consider to be the key concepts.

Read the question below and think about which words are the key concepts.

Research question

What interventions increase physical activity in Australian adolescents?

Activity: identify key concepts from a question

Which words did you identify as the key concepts from the research question provided above? You can check the answers below.

List of the highlighted key concepts

  • interventions
  • physical activity
  • Australian
  • adolescents

Step 3: Identify synonyms for each concept

You need synonyms (similar words) to describe your topic in as many ways as possible, so that your search will pick up studies from authors all around the world. Each author often has their own way of describing your topic, using different terms. So look for as many synonyms, alternative spellings (UK/US), related words, scientific names, instruments or measures, acronyms, abbreviations and any other variation you can think of.


Example of concepts and synonyms

Concept 1:

Concept 2:

Concept 3:






young people






New South Wales

Northern Territory

Physical activity

physically active




Step 4: Add search techniques to each term

Various search techniques should be applied to your identified keywords when developing and refining a search strategy. These can include truncation, phrase searching, and Boolean operators. Below we use EBSCO platform examples which follow common usage, other platforms may vary slightly.

Search Technique Explanation EBSCO Platform Example
Boolean Operators

Boolean operators use capitalised words (such as AND, OR) to produce more relevant results, when searching in a database.  

Using AND between words finds results containing those words.   

Using OR between words finds results containing any of those words. 

(Sport OR exercise)


(teen OR adolescent)

Alternative keywords (synonyms)

When searching databases, it’s important to think about synonyms, other words that have the same meaning as your keywords.    

In this example, alternative words for intervention would be program or strategy.  

program OR strategy OR pilot OR intervention 

Phrase searching


Databases typically search for words individually. To search for multiple keywords as a single phrase, apply double quotation marks (" "), at the beginning and end of the keyword phrase.   

In this example, "physical activity" will find results containing this exact phrase and not find results that contain these words separately.  

NB. hyphenated words must be phrase searched as hyphens are seen as spaces by databases. For example "well-being".

Physical activity 


"Physical activity" 



Keywords can have many different endings. Applying a symbol, such as an asterisk (*), at the end of the root of the word will search for additional words with different endings and spellings.

Be careful not to shorten words too much, instead write out all variants of words. e.g. polic* = policies, policy, police, policing

teen* will find teens, teenage, teenager, teenaged, etc. 

Additional search techniques


Proximity searching is one of the more advanced search techniques and not all databases provide this function. 

Proximity searching uses operators to search for one keyword in close proximity to another keyword.  

In this example, the following search in Medline Complete will find every instance where variations of the word physical appears no more than 5 words away from variations of the word activity: (physical N5 activity)

You can also use search lines and proximity (S1 N3 S2)

Proximity in Embase is written in one line with a set of brackets around the whole statement so you can apply ab,ti fields to the whole statement,
eg. ((teen* OR youth* or adolescen*) NEAR/2 (wom?n or female*)):ab,ti


Parentheses can be used to group terms to ensure search techniques and field codes apply to mutliple words. 

In this example, the word physical appears no more than 5 words away from variations of the word activity or training: ((physical) N5 (activity OR training))

Wildcards - and why we avoid them

Wildcards often ? or #, are symbols which replace one character for another character. Or sometimes replace one character for no character. However in practice we have found that these symbols are applied erratically across different database platforms and they recognise some characters and not others, especially a 'space' within a phrase.

In particular researchers wish to use pre#school, to find pre-school, preschool and pre school however the final term pre school has a space, and the wildcard cannot replace itself with a space, a space is not deemed a character atleast in the EBSCO platform.

We recommend thorough testing and reading of the database platform help before relying on the wildcard in your search.


Step 5: Choose your databases

It is important to choose your databases before you begin building your systematic search and record these choices in your protocol if you are undertaking a systematic review. For more information, see the section on Protocols and Guidelines in our Systematic and Systematic-like Review Toolkit.