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Health Sciences--Advanced Search Guide

Using the right words

The terms used for specific populations, especially ethnic populations, are subject to change over time. For instance, in the offical subject vocabularies of various databases and organizations, African Americans have been refered to as African Americans, Afro Americans, Blacks, and Negroes. Obviously, we don't use all of the terms in the present time. Even currently, however, different databases use the terms differents. CINAHL, for instance, uses 'Blacks' exclusively. SocIndex, however, distinguishes between 'African Americans' (citizens of the United States) and 'Blacks--United States' (short term residents).

Finding population subject terms

In most of our databases, you can search the Subject Terms for specific words and phrases used to describe particular topics. In our most used databases, the subject link is right at the top:

The name varies in different databases:

  • MEDLINE: MeSH (Medical Subject Headings)
  • CINAHL: CINAHL Headings
  • SocIndex: Subject Headings
  • PsycInfo: Thesaurus

In other databases, look for Thesaurus or Subject Headings, often in the Advanced Search.

Some databases do not have specific lists of subject terms, like ScienceDirect. (See below for suggestions.)


Within MEDLINE, CINAHL, SocIndex, PsycInfo, and other EBSCO databases:

  1. FIRST, choose Advanced Search, then click the Headings/Thesaurus link up top.
  2. Choose Relevancy Ranked under the search box.
  3. Type a term for your population group, i.e. 'Asian Americans', 'African Americans', 'Hispanic Americans', etc.
  4. Click Enter or the Browse button.
  5. Click the recommended term, which may be repeated several times. The examples below are from MEDLINE:
      Hispanic Americans
         American, Hispanic Use: Hispanic Americans
         Americans, Hispanic Use: Hispanic Americans
         Hispanic American Use: Hispanic Americans
         Hispanics Use: Hispanic Americans
  6. A hierarchical list will appear, with the term, broader terms (Ethnic Groups) and any narrower terms.
  7. Check the box to the left of the term you want to use. Additional subheadings and notes about how to use the term.
  8. Additional checkboxes:
    • Use Explode to include any subcategories (Hispanic Americans includes Mexican Americans).
    • Use Major Heading to get only articles where the focus is on this population, as opposed to articles where this population is mentioned, but not the focus of the article.
    • Use the Subheadings (Genetics, Psychology, etc.) to focus on that aspect relating to the population.
  9. You can add more terms by clicking Back to Term List at the top of the word list, then clicking Browse more terms at the bottom--or click the Search button to the right, and then add additional terms in the search boxes at the top.
  10. If you choose to add more terms, you will have to choose to "connect" the terms with AND (include both terms in all results) or OR (terms are alternatives and don't all have to be in the results.)
    • Examples: Hispanic Americans AND breast neoplasms; Hispanic Americans OR Asian Americans

    You can only pick one or the other within the subject heading search, but you can change it in the search box after doing a search, as well as adding additional terms. (This can get tricky; adding additional keyword terms is the easiest method.)

Age related populations

In the Advanced Search, look for the Age Related options under the Search box. Specific age ranges are offered from infant to elderly in many of our medical related databases.

Think carefully about the age ranges of your desired population. For instance, if you want college students, you may find that the usual age of college student overlaps the age categories. You might need to search for both 13-18 (Adolescent), and 19-44 (Adult) in CINAHL. That means that your search will turn up articles on highschool students and full adults who may or may not be in college. If you really want students in college, you might also add a keyword search like "college OR university" to your search. Or perhaps any study that deals with the same medical issues that face college students is what you want, so selecting Adult 19-44 is sufficient.

When there are no subject headings...

Use additional terms within your search. Use OR between words to tell the database that the terms are alternatives to each other:

teenager OR adolescent

cocaine OR heroin OR marijuana OR illegal drugs

Can't think of additional terms? Try Google's thesaurus search:

  • In Google, use the ~ (tilde) before the word you want synonyms for. The results will bold the terms used in the search, including your original term.
    • ~DUI = DUI, DWI, driving under the influence, driving while intoxicated, drunk driving, alcohol and driving, drugged driving, drink-driving (British term), etc.
  • Use some of those terms in your search in the library databases.
  • (Unfortunately, this doesn't work in Google Scholar.)
Google Web Search