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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The application of foraging theory to the information searching behaviour of general practitioners

Mai Dwairy1*, Anthony C Dowell1 and Jean-Claude Stahl2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Primary Health Care and General Practice, Wellington School of Medicine, University of Otago, New Zealand

2 Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand

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BMC Family Practice 2011, 12:90  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-12-90

Published: 23 August 2011



General Practitioners (GPs) employ strategies to identify and retrieve medical evidence for clinical decision making which take workload and time constraints into account. Optimal Foraging Theory (OFT) initially developed to study animal foraging for food is used to explore the information searching behaviour of General Practitioners. This study is the first to apply foraging theory within this context.

Study objectives were:

1. To identify the sequence and steps deployed in identifiying and retrieving evidence for clinical decision making.

2. To utilise Optimal Foraging Theory to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of General Practitioner information searching.


GPs from the Wellington region of New Zealand were asked to document in a pre-formatted logbook the steps and outcomes of an information search linked to their clinical decision making, and fill in a questionnaire about their personal, practice and information-searching backgrounds.


A total of 115/155 eligible GPs returned a background questionnaire, and 71 completed their information search logbook.

GPs spent an average of 17.7 minutes addressing their search for clinical information. Their preferred information sources were discussions with colleagues (38% of sources) and books (22%). These were the two most profitable information foraging sources (15.9 min and 9.5 min search time per answer, compared to 34.3 minutes in databases). GPs nearly always accessed another source when unsuccessful (95% after 1st source), and frequently when successful (43% after 2nd source). Use of multiple sources accounted for 41% of searches, and increased search success from 70% to 89%.


By consulting in foraging terms the most 'profitable' sources of information (colleagues, books), rapidly switching sources when unsuccessful, and frequently double checking, GPs achieve an efficient trade-off between maximizing search success and information reliability, and minimizing searching time. As predicted by foraging theory, GPs trade time-consuming evidence-based (electronic) information sources for sources with a higher information reward per unit time searched. Evidence-based practice must accommodate these 'real world' foraging pressures, and Internet resources should evolve to deliver information as effectively as traditional methods of information gathering.

Information Foraging; General Practitioners; Evidence - based medicine; Information Seeking Behavior; Questionnaires.