Help with Medical Databases

help-button-66608_1280Using a database properly can be a daunting prospect if no-one has ever shown you how to search them efficiently. However it’s a key skill for medical students and one you will need to learn, so it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with using databases as much as possible before you find yourself lost in the middle of a literature search or systematic review.

What is a database?

A database is a platform that allows you to combine your key concepts in order to efficiently search through a collection of bibliographic records for journal articles and other resources relevant to the topic you are researching. Databases vary in size – some contain only a few thousand records, while the larger ones in the field of medicine contain many millions of records stretching back several decades.

Remember, a database doesn’t contain the text of the articles themselves or list resources that are necessarily available to the University – it is only telling you what literature about your topic is out there in the world. In order to work out if an article is available to you, use the SFX button that is present in most of the University’s databases. This will link you to any article available online or allow you to search for the journal in the Library Catalogue to see if we have it on paper.

What are the most widely-used databases for medical students?

MEDLINE – A vast North American database covering medicine, nursing, pharmacy, dentistry, veterinary medicine, and health care. Also contains some records on biology and biochemistry, as well as fields such as molecular evolution. Contains over 24 million records from 1946 onwards and indexes more than 5,600 journals and provided to the University through OVID.

EMBASE – Similar to MEDLINE but European. Contains over 28 million records from 1947 onwards and indexes more than 8,400 journals. Provided to the University through OVID. MEDLINE and EMBASE index many of the same journals but each also covers many titles that aren’t in the other.

See our quick guide to using MEDLINE and other OVID databases here.

CINAHL – The focus is on nursing and allied health resources but also contains some biomedicine and healthcare literature. Indexes around 5000 journals and contains over 4.3 million records. Provided to the University through EBSCO.

See our quick guide to using CINHAL here.

Cochrane Library – A collection of databases in medicine and other healthcare specialties provided by the Cochrane Collaboration and other organizations. At its core is the collection of Cochrane Reviews, a database of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Contains far fewer records than EMBASE or MEDLINE but as the focus is on systematic reviews and randomised controlled trials rather than journal articles it is a valuable and important evidence-based resource.

See our quick guide to using the Cochrane Library here.

How do I access the University’s databases?

First, go to the Library’s search and discovery tool, Primo ( > Library > Search our Collections > Search using Primo) then click on the red ‘find databases’ tab at the top of the screen. From here you can search by name if you know which database you are looking for or by category and sub-category if you want to browse the available databases associated with specific subjects. Click on ‘Find databases’ to activate your selection.

What is MeSH and how does it work?

You may have heard people referring to ‘MeSH terms’ with reference to databases. MeSH stands for Medical Subject Heading; the idea is that databases have a controlled vocabulary (like a thesaurus) to help you uncover relevant results indexed under different terms that mean the same thing. If you have MeSH terms enabled, the database will look at the word you have typed in and try and match it to an overarching umbrella term which will encapsulate all the term’s synonyms and bring you results for all of them without you having to type each different term in individually. MeSH is specific to MEDLINE, but many databases have their own version; EMBASE has a controlled language called EMTREE and CINAHL has CINAHL headings. They all work in the same way. Whether controlled terms are searched for by default or whether you have to turn them on manually depends on the database in question.

Where can I get more help?

If you would like a practical demonstration of how to use any of the various databases or need help with any other aspect of using them (for instance how to export search results to RefWorks) please visit the Medical Library’s drop-in Enquiry Desk, open 9am-4.30pm Monday to Friday, where a member of staff will be happy to help you.

Medical Library Team


Published by

Medical Library, University of Aberdeen

The team in the Medical Library at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland

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