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Open Access Research article

Developing optimal search strategies for detecting clinically sound prognostic studies in MEDLINE: an analytic survey

Nancy L Wilczynski1, R Brian Haynes12* and the Hedges Team

Author affiliations

1 Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, L8N 3Z5, Canada

2 Department of Medicine, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, L8N 3Z5, Canada

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Citation and License

BMC Medicine 2004, 2:23  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-2-23

Published: 9 June 2004

Abstract

Background

Clinical end users of MEDLINE have a difficult time retrieving articles that are both scientifically sound and directly relevant to clinical practice. Search filters have been developed to assist end users in increasing the success of their searches. Many filters have been developed for the literature on therapy and reviews but little has been done in the area of prognosis. The objective of this study is to determine how well various methodologic textwords, Medical Subject Headings, and their Boolean combinations retrieve methodologically sound literature on the prognosis of health disorders in MEDLINE.

Methods

An analytic survey was conducted, comparing hand searches of journals with retrievals from MEDLINE for candidate search terms and combinations. Six research assistants read all issues of 161 journals for the publishing year 2000. All articles were rated using purpose and quality indicators and categorized into clinically relevant original studies, review articles, general papers, or case reports. The original and review articles were then categorized as 'pass' or 'fail' for methodologic rigor in the areas of prognosis and other clinical topics. Candidate search strategies were developed for prognosis and run in MEDLINE – the retrievals being compared with the hand search data. The sensitivity, specificity, precision, and accuracy of the search strategies were calculated.

Results

12% of studies classified as prognosis met basic criteria for scientific merit for testing clinical applications. Combinations of terms reached peak sensitivities of 90%. Compared with the best single term, multiple terms increased sensitivity for sound studies by 25.2% (absolute increase), and increased specificity, but by a much smaller amount (1.1%) when sensitivity was maximized. Combining terms to optimize both sensitivity and specificity achieved sensitivities and specificities of approximately 83% for each.

Conclusion

Empirically derived search strategies combining indexing terms and textwords can achieve high sensitivity and specificity for retrieving sound prognostic studies from MEDLINE.