Open Access Open Badges Research article

Analysis of queries sent to PubMed at the point of care: Observation of search behaviour in a medical teaching hospital

Arjen Hoogendam12*, Anton FH Stalenhoef1, Pieter F de Vries Robbé2 and A John PM Overbeke2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Medicine, Division of General Internal Medicine, Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, Nijmegen, the Netherlands

2 Department of Medical Informatics, Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, P.O. Box 9101, 6500 HB, Geert Grooteplein 21, Nijmegen, the Netherlands

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BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making 2008, 8:42  doi:10.1186/1472-6947-8-42

Published: 24 September 2008



The use of PubMed to answer daily medical care questions is limited because it is challenging to retrieve a small set of relevant articles and time is restricted. Knowing what aspects of queries are likely to retrieve relevant articles can increase the effectiveness of PubMed searches. The objectives of our study were to identify queries that are likely to retrieve relevant articles by relating PubMed search techniques and tools to the number of articles retrieved and the selection of articles for further reading.


This was a prospective observational study of queries regarding patient-related problems sent to PubMed by residents and internists in internal medicine working in an Academic Medical Centre. We analyzed queries, search results, query tools (Mesh, Limits, wildcards, operators), selection of abstract and full-text for further reading, using a portal that mimics PubMed.


PubMed was used to solve 1121 patient-related problems, resulting in 3205 distinct queries. Abstracts were viewed in 999 (31%) of these queries, and in 126 (39%) of 321 queries using query tools. The average term count per query was 2.5. Abstracts were selected in more than 40% of queries using four or five terms, increasing to 63% if the use of four or five terms yielded 2–161 articles.


Queries sent to PubMed by physicians at our hospital during daily medical care contain fewer than three terms. Queries using four to five terms, retrieving less than 161 article titles, are most likely to result in abstract viewing. PubMed search tools are used infrequently by our population and are less effective than the use of four or five terms. Methods to facilitate the formulation of precise queries, using more relevant terms, should be the focus of education and research.