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Health Sciences Literature Searching: Beginning Your Search

A guide to help you search the Health Sciences literature

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Use the following links to jump to a chosen topic to begin your search:

Background Questions


What are CINAHL and PubMed?

Using Better Search Terms

How does this guide work?

You can either go through this guide page by page for an overview of health sciences literature searching, or you can choose a page from the bar at the top that best answers your question based on your search.

Background Questions

Getting Started
When you are beginning to plan your search of the health sciences literature, an important first step is to think about the type of question you are asking.

Background Questions
Background questions usually address What, When, Where, How, etc. These are the types of questions that health sciences students need to ask when they are just getting started in their educational process. However, experienced clinicians ask background questions as well. Some examples of background questions include:

  • What are the adverse effects associated with Celebrex (celecoxib)?
  • What are the best tests to diagnose strep throat?
  • How does ADHD differ from ADD?
  • When is the best time to begin physical therapy after total hip replacement?

You can find many sources to address background questions in these Gumberg guides:



Using PICO helps you decide on search terms in order to find relevant information to your research question.


Once you have a background question to search, you can use PICO to narrow and focus your questions. It is important to be very specific. 

P Patient, Population, or Problem
I Intervention
C Comparison or Control
O Outcome


Here is an example:

Questions: "Would weekly checks of the air within the helmet padding lead to lower concussion rates in high school football players when compared to checking air pressure before the season and again mid-season? Is the evidence enough to require weekly checks of high school football players' helmets?"

P: In high school football players who have received head injuries...

I: ...would weekly checks of the air within the helmet padding...

C: ...when compared to checking air pressure before the season and again mid-season...

O: ...lead to lower concussion rates. Is the evidence enough for the school district to require weekly checks of high school football player's helmets?

In this example, the focus is on high school football players with head injuries. This study could be narrowed even more by selecting a certain football position to study. This study compares weekly helmet checks to only two checks a season. Is there a decrease in concussion rates with weekly checks? If there is enough evidence, should the school district require athletic trainers and football staff to check the helmets weekly? If the school district does change their helmet-checking requirements and schedules, this would be evidence based practice.

Can you think of an example?


Also, see Centre for Evidence Based Medicine's guide.

The database Embase offers a PICO tool for building and conducting a search. Check out our video tutorial on PICO in Embase to learn more.


CINAHL and PubMed are bibliographic databases that focus on nursing, biomedical, and health science journals.

What are CINAHL and PubMed?

Now that you have a narrower question to search, you can use these two major databases to begin searching.

CINAHL and PubMed are both electronic indexes to journal articles, periodicals, citations, and abstracts for health sciences literature. Although they are both similar, they have some key differences to keep in mind when choosing which to use for your search.


CINAHL stands for the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature. CINAHL includes citations and abstracts for more than 2,900 nursing and allied health journals from 1981 to the present plus health care books and book chapters, nursing dissertations, conference proceedings, and more. This database is largely nursing literature but reflects the interdisciplinary nature of nursing. The language and structure of CINAHL demonstrate its focus on the patient.


Click here to access CINAHL through the Gumberg Library.


PubMed provides access to MEDLINE, the National Library of Medicine's database of citations and abstracts in the fields of medicine, nursing, health care systems, and preclinical sciences. MEDLINE comprises approximately 5,200 journals published in more than 80 countries. The articles indexed in PubMed tend to focus on the disease, treatment, or procedure.


PubMed includes PubMed Central (PMC), the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) free digital archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature. When accessing PubMed through the Gumberg Library website, be sure to click on PubMed@Duquesne because it includes all the free PubMed Central Resources AND all the resources for which Duquesne pays that are not made freely available by the National Institutes of Health. Learn more about using PubMed @ Duquesne by watching this tutorial video.


Click here to access PubMed@Duquesne through the Gumberg Library.


CINAHL and PubMed are not the only health sciences databases you can use but they are considered the best.


Click here to see Gumberg Library’s entire list of health sciences databases.

Choosing Better Search Terms

Click here to access the next page to find more information about choosing better search terms or try your search yourself!

Subject Guide

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David Nolfi


If you're confused about searching,
Ask Gumberg any time of day for help.