Background: Evaluating the existence and strength of an association between a putative cause and adverse clinical outcome is complex and best done by assessing all available evidence. With the increasing burden of chronic disease, greater time demands on health professionals, and the explosion of information, effective retrieval of best evidence has become both more important and more difficult. Optimal search retrieval can be hampered by a number of obstacles, especially poor search strategies, but using empirically tested methodological search filters can enhance the accuracy of searches for sound evidence concerning etiology. Although such filters have previously been developed for studies of relevance to causation in MEDLINE, no empirically tested search strategy exists for EMBASE.
Methods: An analytic survey was conducted, comparing hand searches of journals with retrievals from EMBASE for candidate search terms and combinations. 6 research assistants read all issues of 55 journals indexed in EMBASE. All articles were rated using purpose and quality indicators and categorized into clinically relevant original studies, review articles, general papers, or case reports. The original and review articles were then categorized as 'pass' or 'fail' for scientific merit according to explicit criteria in the areas of causation (etiology) and other clinical topics. Candidate search strategies were developed for causation, then run in a subset of 55 EMBASE journals, the retrievals being compared with the hand search data. The sensitivity, specificity, precision, and accuracy of the search strategies were calculated.
Results: Of the 1489 studies classified as causation, 14% were methodologically sound. When search terms were combined, sensitivity reached 92%. Compared with the best single-term strategy, the best combination of terms resulted in an absolute increase in sensitivity (19%) and specificity (5.2%). Maximizing specificity for combined terms resulted in an increase of 7.1% compared with the single term but this came at an expense of sensitivity (39% absolute decrease). A search strategy that optimized the trade-off between sensitivity and specificity achieved 81.9% for sensitivity and 81.4% for specificity.
Conclusion: We have discovered search strategies that retrieve high quality studies of causation from EMBASE with high sensitivity, high specificity, or an optimal balance of each.