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Systematic and Rapid Reviews: Medicine, Health & Life Science

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Resources and help on searching following a systematic approach

For resources, videos and tutorials on the whole systematic searching process, broken down into bite size pieces,  including PRISMA diagrams, please see the Library Canvas hub module on Systematic searching.

PICO: a tool for identifying your clinical question and search terms

Start considering your key search terms by identifying the key concepts in your research questions and then consider synonyms, related terms, different spellings, abbreviations, more specific and general terms that an author or authors may have used to discuss the topic.

The PICO tool Patient/Intervention/Comparison/Outcome can help you to frame your research question and identify concepts for your medical/clinical search.

If PICO isn't working for your search then you might like to consider another framework such as:

  • PICo - Population, Interest, Context (A modified version for qualitative questions)
  • SPICE - Setting; Perspective; Intervention/Interest, of Phenomenon; Comparison; Evaluation.
  • SPIDER - Sample; Phenomenon of Interest; Design; Evaluation; Research type.

Or don't use a framework and separate your topic into different search concepts.

 e.g. Hospital acquired infection

So your key terms could include; Hospital acquired infection/Cross infection


So your key search terms may include; handwashing/hand washing/hand-washing/hand hygiene

Other solutions

So your key search terms may include; alcohol rub/sanitizers/hand rub/hand gel

Reduced infection

So you may include reduction in your search. Although consider carefully as searching for articles that include hospital acquired infection and handwashing and other solutions you may find relevant material without the addition of reduced/reduction to your search.

Grey literature and Datasets

Grey literature refers to both published and unpublished research material that is not available commercially. A systematic review can be biased when it fails to report crucial information that may be hidden in some grey literature. A search of grey literature is one way to address potentially biased reporting of research results in published material.
Some examples of grey literature are:

  • conference papers/conference proceedings
  • theses
  • clinical trials
  • newsletters
  • pamphlets
  • reports
  • fact sheets, bulletins
  • government documents
  • surveys
  • interviews
  • informal communication (e.g. blogs, podcasts, email)

Grey literature can be the best source of up-to-date research on some topics note however that grey literature is usually not subject to peer review and must be evaluated accordingly. There is a guide on locating and searching for Grey Literature below.

Data and Datasets are increasingly being used as supporting evidence. There is a guide to locating and searching for datasets below.

Key databases

Key steps in critical appraisal/quality assessment for methodologies and searches

Step 1: Note the design(s) of the studies to be included in your review

Step 2: Identify the type(s) of quality assessment tool(s) to suit your review

Step 3: Source appropriate quality assessment tool(s)

Step 4: Carry out quality assessment using the appropriate tool(s)

Step 5: Tabulate and summarize the results of your quality assessment

Step 6: Think about how the quality assessment results might impact on the recommendations and conclusions of your systematic review

Additional databases

E-learning on critical appraisal/quality assessment

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