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Ebsco Search Guide

A guide to searching healthcare databases eg Medline, Cinahl using the EbscoHost (Ebsco) Search tool.

Planning your search

Before you begin searching Ebsco, it is recommended that you identify appropriate keywords to describe your topic.

For help on this, please see the Literature Searching LibGuide. The section on 'Planning your search' will provide more detail on identifying relevant terms and links to helpful templates and frameworks you can use to structure your search.

For more in-depth searching, the Systematic reviews: finding and managing the evidence LibGuide is also a useful starting point.

You can follow the steps to building your search from this video demonstration.  This is a section of the 'How to search Healthcare databases using Ebscohost' video which is on the Home tab of this guide.

Build a search strategy

Subject Terms are terms that are allocated to each article to describe its content.  They are a form of controlled vocabulary.  Searching via Subject Terms is an efficient way to search databases as they cater for the differences in spellings and/or word meanings and can make your search results more relevant and specific.

When you search Cinahl or Medine using Ebsco, the 'Suggest Subject Terms' box will be checked by default:

The system will compare your search term (e.g. diabetes, as above)  to the Subject Terms that have been used to index the articles in either Medline or Cinahl. 

You might be offered an exact match in the next screen that is displayed. If there isn't an exact match, you may need to select the one that is most appropriate. There will be a 'scope' option on the right hand side of the page for most Subject Terms, which will give you an idea as to how the Subject Term is used in that particular database.  This will provide you with more details about how the Subject Term is being used.

Some 'broader' or 'large' Subject Terms, such as 'Wound Care', are further subdivided into narrower/smaller Subject Terms, for example, 'Wound Care'  is further subdivided into 'Debridement', and 'Surgical Wound Care'.    For these broader subject terms, Cinahl and Medline offer the option to Explode, on the right hand side.  You should select this option where available, to make sure you cover all the terms available for e.g. 'Wound Care' or any other Subject Term where the Explode option is available.  Not ticking this option may result in you missing some articles.

image of selecting a subject term including using explode

Once you have made your selection, click on the Search Database option.  You should leave the Include All Subheadings option ticked (this is the default option).

Remember: Medline and Cinahl use a different controlled vocabulary so the Subject Terms will vary between the 2 databases.

For the 2 databases that use Subject Terms (Cinahl and Medline) you will either need to turn off the suggest subject terms box to search for keywords, or use the option 'search as keyword' below the list of subject terms that you are offered.  The 'suggest subject terms' box defaults to being ticked for each search, so unless your keyword search includes a phrase of more that 2 words, or a proximity operator, it is best to select the 'search as keyword' option.  This option works even when you are using truncation. 

The search for diabetes above will offer the option 'diabetes (search as keyword)' below the list of Subject Terms.  Where appropriate, select this and click Search Database near the top right hand side of the screen.

diabetes search as keyword example

For all databases, if you have multiple keywords, it is best to search for them each individually. 

You will find additional helpful tips for keyword searching by clicking on the other tabs in the 'build a search strategy' box.

For databases other than Cinahl and Medline, enter your first search term in the search box and click 'Search'. All of the articles that refer to your search term will appear in the search history below the search box. Repeat this step until you have searched for all of your relevant terms.

Please note: it is best to avoid words that are too general or too abstract, as this will compromise both the number and relevancy of results you retrieve. Such words include: the, a, in, of, or, as well as words such as discuss, importance, analyse etc.

Authors often use different words to describe subject areas.  For this reason, it is important to include synonyms, phrases, UK/US spellings and different word endings in your search strategy.

Tip: If you have already found or know about an article that perfectly matches your topic, it can be very effective to look at the terms used in their title or abstract and apply them to your own search strategy.  This will help you to locate more articles like it.

You will find additional helpful tips for keyword searching by clicking on the other tabs in the 'build a search strategy' box.

You can make your searches more focussed by using phrase searching.

When two or more words commonly appear next to each other, enclose them in double quotation marks (" ") to ensure that the results refer to the specific concept in which you are interested. For example: "physical therapy"

Be aware that some phrases can be expressed in different word orders, for example, " active labour management" vs "active management of labour" and you will need to use both examples to capture every article on this topic.


When you use keywords for your search, using the * symbol (on the number 8 of your keyboard) is useful for capturing plurals and other derivatives of a particular word stem. For example, mentor* will find articles containing the words mentor, mentors, mentorship and so on.

Using truncation appropriately will mean that you do not miss out on any relevant results.

It is not necessary to use truncation when you are using Subject Terms.

You can use a proximity search to search for two or more words that occur within a specified number of words (or fewer) of each other in the databases. Proximity searching is used with a Keyword search.  It is not suitable for use with Subject Terms. If you are using Medline or Cinahl, you need to untick the 'suggest subject terms' box before these operators will work.  

diabetes search with suggest subject terms box unticked

The proximity operators are composed of a letter (N or W) and a number (to specify the number of words apart the terms should be). The proximity operator is placed between the words that are to be searched, as follows:

Near Operator (N) - N5 finds the words if they are within five words of one another regardless of the order in which they appear.

For example, type tax N5 reform to find results that would match tax reform as well as reform of income tax.

Within Operator (W) - In the following example, W8 finds the words if they are within eight words of one another and in the order in which you entered them.

For example, type tax W8 reform to find results that would match tax reform but would not match reform of income tax.

In addition, multiple terms can be used on either side of the operator. See the following examples:

  • (baseball OR football OR basketball) N5 (teams OR players)
  • oil W3 (disaster OR clean-up OR contamination)

Tick the boxes of the lines of the searches you wish to combine (e.g. 1 and 2) and then select AND or OR using the logic below, before clicking on Combine:

stress OR anxiety


Documents that discuss

either stress or anxiety

stress AND anxiety

Documents that discuss
both stress and anxiety

Remember, use OR to combine terms that are similar to one another. This will broaden your search. Use AND to combine different concepts. This will focus your search.  Using AND or OR is also known as Boolean searching.

Your search might look something like this:

image of cinahl search for dementia and music therapy

The Refine Results function in Ebsco can help narrow your search further and remove irrelevant articles. This function is available on the left hand side of the screen where you view you search results.   


 Select Full Text E-journals to view those articles that the Library subscribes to.  This will, however, exclude free public access journals, so use with caution.

  If you wish to restrict your results to a publication date range (those published in the last five years, for   example), use the date slider Option.

 These changes will be automatically applied to the top line of your search history, unless you are viewing  results from a different line in your search history; in this case the options will be applied to this line. 

 A new search line with the amended results will appear above your previous search history.  The options you  have selected will then be applied to any new search you carry out, until you remove the search option.   

 You can use more than one search option at the same time, for example, limited to the last 5 years, and choosing a particular age group from the options available.

 Ideally you should apply limits at the end of your search. Applying them earlier may mean you miss out on relevant papers.


The Age, Gender and Language options may be useful, depending on your search.