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Health Policy: Create a Plan


Step One: Write out your idea for a topic.  Circle the main concepts.  These will be your first search terms.  

Step Two: Do a quick background search.  

  • Google: Type your topic idea into Google.  SKIM the results.  See what other terms come up.  If lots of professional organizations (like nursing organizations) or government sites (like the CDC, AHQR, or CMS) come up, you may have a good starting search you can put into the databases.  If not, try adding the phrase to your Google search.  Notice the difference in results.  Start writing down some of the terms that come up in your search.
  • Catalog: Type the term into the Search Everything box on the library’s web and SKIM the results—look for terms that come up frequently. Check for your topic in the index of your textbook or in a subject-specific encyclopedia. 
  • This is a quick process—don’t spend more than about 10 minutes doing this.

Step Three: Start a Brainstorm

Brainstorming can help you visualize your topic and all its parts.  Researchers may only look at a couple aspects of your whole question in one paper.  Or they may describe your topic using different terms.  Brainstorming can help you organize your search and think of new ways to search.  Start simple.

You can do this with a pencil and sheet of paper, or you can use Mindmapping tools from the internet, such as or

Step Four: Preliminary Search

Do a preliminary search in a subject database.  Use the words in each of your brainstorm bubbles as a different search term.

Put the term AND in between terms to search for both terms together.

The most commonly used databases in medicine are PubMed and CINAHL.  Both an be found on the library’s web page under Databases A-Z

This step is a fast search—don’t spend more than about 5 minutes in each database in this step.

Step Five: Grow your Brainstorm

Look through the first page or so of results. Look for terms that show up that are related, either synonyms or very closely related to your topic.

If you got lots of results, look for narrower terms—terms that are more specific.

If you didn’t get many results, look for broader terms—terms that are less specific.

Tools to help you brainstorm:

  • Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) in PubMed
  • MeSH On Demand ( 
  • Subject Terms in CINAHL
  •  Loosely related articles in the Cochrane database or on Google
  • Wikipedia or other encyclopedia entries

You may end up adding to your brainstorm throughout your search.  Be flexible with your brainstorm.


Determine what information you need


  • General Info - examples: definitions, certification or degree info, professional practice standards, professional organization info
  • Original Research - examples: benchmarks, randomized controlled trials, cohort studies
  • Data and Statistics - examples: population counts, GIS data, county income averages
  • Laws or Policies – examples: text of the Affordable Care Act, government policies regarding licensing
  • Reviews: compilation or overview of research evidence
  • Full Text of an Article: when you have the citation, enter the article or book title in the search box
  • Book/eBook: print or online monographs
  • Class Textbook: course materials


Information Types

Sources (see box on the right for some examples)

Open Web
(ex: CDC)

Article Databases
(ex: CINAHL)

Informational Databases
(ex:BMJ Best Practice)

Library Catalog

General Info





Laws or Policies





Best Practice Info




Original Research





Data and Statistics










Full Text of an Article/Book










Class Textbook





*Use in combination with other sources since the information here is likely to be incomplete.

Combining your Terms into a Search

 (connect terms)





Nurses AND Vaccination

Results contain both of the terms



Teens OR Adolescents

Results can contain any of the terms



(Vaccination OR HPV Vaccine)  AND

 (Adolescents OR Teens OR Teenager OR Young Adult) AND Nurses

Results include both topics using any of the terms connected by OR.

 Too Many Results?

  • Combine different topics with ANDExample search: music therapy AND pain management
  • Use limiters/filters, usually on the left side
    • Limit by publication date
    • Limit to peer-reviewed articles
    • Limit by publication type (e.g., randomized controlled trials, systematic reviews)
  • If there are still way too many results
    • Choose a narrower subject. Example: Change vaccination to a specific vaccine (i.e. HPV Vaccine, Booster shots)


Too Few Results?

  • Add synonymous terms with ORExample search: coronary artery bypass OR CABG
  • Use truncation symbols (*, ?, $, etc. The chosen symbol varies by database.) Example search: nurs* - results: nursing, nurses, nursery, etc.
  • Choose a broader subject. Example: Change adolescents to juveniles or children.
  • Group your terms together—>put similar terms (synonyms, related terms) together in parentheses with each term separated by the word OR.
  • To make a search more specific put “exact phrases” in quotation marks



  • If you can’t find articles with EVERY component of your search, try looking for parts of the search separately.  Be flexible with your search and try different combinations.

Helpful tools

Tools for Step 2

Google Web Search

Tools for Step Three

Tools for Step 4

Tools for Step 5