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Searching the Literature: A Guide for Nurses : Step 6: Build a Search Strategy

In steps 1-5, you learned how to identify searchable components within a question, brainstorm synonyms, how to use a variety of search tips, and which databases are available and best for health science research.

It is now time to construct your search strategy. You may choose to organize your thoughts into a chart, as shown below using a modified version of our question from Step 2 as an example:

Does hand washing (I) among healthcare workers (P) reduce hospital acquired infections (O)? (No handwashing is the (C) and there is no (T) for this question, but you get the idea.)

Synonyms for Concept #1 (I) Hand washing OR Handwashing OR Hand hygiene OR Hand disinfection
Synonyms for Concept #2 (O) Hospital acquired infections OR Cross infection OR Nosocomial infections OR Healthcare associated infections
Synonyms for Concept #3 (P) Healthcare workers OR Health personnel OR Healthcare provider OR Health professional


The idea here is to combine synonyms and concepts in different ways for multiple searches. Example search strategies:

  • (Hand washing OR Handwashing OR hand hygiene) AND (nosocomial infections OR cross infection) AND (Health personnel OR Healthcare workers)
  • (Hand washing OR Handwashing) AND (nosocomial infections OR cross infection)
  • Pretty much any way you can think of to combine your terms is a good idea!


  • If you find that you are not getting many results with a complex strategy, eliminate terms.
  • Also, it is often a good idea to search concepts individually, paired, and with multiples. For instance, there may be important, relevant information about hand hygiene and nosocomial infections that does not include healthcare workers. Conversely, there may be information about how healthcare workers perform hand hygiene that does not include discussion of nosocomial infections.
  • You can write your search strategy into a single search box or just use the tools provided. For instance, in CINAHL you can place search terms within boxes and choose which operators you want to use (see screenshot below).
  • It's also a good idea to keep a chart of the search strategies you have used, where you used them, and the results. (This is often called a matrix.)
  • Refer back to Step 4 for other ways to modify your search when necessary.
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