Research Synthesis Methods

Locating qualitative studies in dementia on MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, and PsycINFO: A comparison of search strategies

Journal Article


Qualitative research in dementia improves understanding of the experience of people affected by dementia. Searching databases for qualitative studies is problematic. Qualitative‐specific search strategies might help with locating studies.


To examine the effectiveness (sensitivity and precision) of 5 qualitative strategies on locating qualitative research studies in dementia in 4 major databases (MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, and CINAHL).


Qualitative dementia studies were checked for inclusion on MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, and CINAHL. Five qualitative search strategies (subject headings, simple free‐text terms, complex free‐text terms, and 2 broad‐based strategies) were tested for study retrieval. Specificity, precision and number needed to read were calculated.


Two hundred fourteen qualitative studies in dementia were included. PsycINFO and CINAHL held the most qualitative studies out the 4 databases studied (N = 171 and 166, respectively) and both held unique records (N = 14 and 7, respectively). The controlled vocabulary strategy in CINAHL returned 96% (N = 192) of studies held; by contrast, controlled vocabulary in PsycINFO returned 7% (N = 13) of studies held. The broad‐based strategies returned more studies (93‐99%) than the other free‐text strategies (22‐82%). Precision ranged from 0.061 to 0.004 resulting in a number needed to read to obtain 1 relevant study ranging from 16 (simple free‐text search in CINAHL) to 239 (broad‐based search in EMBASE).


Qualitative search strategies using 3 broad terms were more sensitive than long complex searches. The controlled vocabulary for qualitative research in CINAHL was particularly effective. Furthermore, results indicate that MEDLINE and EMBASE offer little benefit for locating qualitative dementia research if CINAHL and PSYCINFO are also searched.

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