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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

EMBASE search strategies for identifying methodologically sound diagnostic studies for use by clinicians and researchers

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

Author Affiliations

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

2 Health Information Research Unit, Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Department of Medicine, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, L8N 3Z5 Canada

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BMC Medicine 2005, 3:7  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-3-7

Published: 29 March 2005

Abstract

Background

Accurate diagnosis by clinicians is the cornerstone of decision making for recommending clinical interventions. The current best evidence from research concerning diagnostic tests changes unpredictably as science advances. Both clinicians and researchers need dependable access to published evidence concerning diagnostic accuracy. Bibliographic databases such as EMBASE provide the most widely available entrée to this literature. The objective of this study was to develop search strategies that optimize the retrieval of methodologically sound diagnostic studies from EMBASE for use by clinicians.

Methods

An analytic survey was conducted, comparing hand searches of 55 journals with retrievals from EMBASE for 4,843 candidate search terms and 6,574 combinations. All articles were rated using purpose and quality indicators, and clinically relevant diagnostic accuracy articles were categorized as 'pass' or 'fail' according to explicit criteria for scientific merit. Candidate search strategies were run in EMBASE, the retrievals being compared with the hand search data. The proposed search strategies were treated as "diagnostic tests" for sound studies and the manual review of the literature was treated as the "gold standard." The sensitivity, specificity, precision and accuracy of the search strategies were calculated.

Results

Of the 433 articles about diagnostic tests, 97 (22.4%) met basic criteria for scientific merit. Combinations of search terms reached peak sensitivities of 100% with specificity at 70.4%. Compared with best single terms, best multiple terms increased sensitivity for sound studies by 8.2% (absolute increase), but decreased specificity (absolute decrease 6%) when sensitivity was maximized. When terms were combined to maximize specificity, the single term "specificity.tw." (specificity of 98.2%) outperformed combinations of terms.

Conclusion

Empirically derived search strategies combining indexing terms and textwords can achieve high sensitivity and specificity for retrieving sound diagnostic studies from EMBASE. These search filters will enhance the searching efforts of clinicians.