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MEDLINE: A Guide to Effective Searching in PubMed and Other Interfaces

By David Mendosa

Last Update: May 11, 2006

MEDLINE: A Guide to Effective Searching in PubMed & Other Interfaces
By Brian S. Katcher
San Francisco: The Ashbury Press
March 2006
148 pages
Soft cover
ISBN: 0967344514


For a review of the second edition of this book, I sought out Chris Engleman, co-director of the Grillo Health Information Center, where I am a volunteer staffer:

Brian S. Katcher’s “MEDLINE: a guide to effective searching in PubMed & other interfaces,” second edition, is a very informative and useful book for those wanting to mine the depths of the health information contained within this powerful database. The text used is fairly simple and straightforward, though for some the textbook-like style may not necessarily be completely engaging. And though, in his preface Mr. Katcher says that the book is intended to be read “from start to finish, away from the computer,” it would seem perhaps a bit challenging to take in all the information he gives, without trying his searching suggestions on the computer while reading about them.

Having said that, the information that is presented in the book is quite thorough and educational. The chapter on “Medical Subject Headings” is particularly useful for those who have not used this particular way of performing searches on Medline. Perhaps the most direct, readable, and practically helpful chapter is the final chapter entitled “Framing Questions and Other Practical Tips.” His discussion about evaluating the results of a search is instructive, especially in advising that different types of journals can present information quite differently.

Overall, the book presents valuable searching information for most levels of researchers, and is therefore worthwhile, even if the presentation style is at times bit “dry” for, especially, the general public.

Read the journal articles your doctors read.

My review of the first edition of this book follows:
With worlds of information at our fingertips on the World Wide Web, consumers of health care (as they are now commonly called) have become more and more responsible for educating themselves when it comes to their health.

Nowhere has this shift of responsibility been greater than among people with diabetes. That’s when many of us turn to websites for interpretations by the experts. Eventually some of us want to dig even deeper and read the same journal articles that our doctors read—or may have missed.

The Internet offers free access to the citations and abstracts of these articles through the National Library of Medicine’s massive MEDLINE database (most easily accessed through the library’s own PubMed). MEDLINE has more than 11 million citations and abstracts for articles published since 1966. They come from more than 4,200 biomedical journals published in more than 70 countries.

With a database like that, it’s easy to see why it would be useful to have guide like Brian Katcher’s MEDLINE: A Guide to Effective Searching. You can hack your way through PubMed to MEDLINE with little or no preparation—as I have for years. But if you want to get the most out of it, a guide like Katcher’s book is worth considering.

His book is so well-written that I found myself sitting down for an evening to read it straight through. Considering that it contains only 85 pages of text in addition to extensive appendices, I probably don’t deserve any prize.

This is, in fact, a slight book for the price. As useful as it might be for people who often conduct MEDLINE searches, you are well advised to try to get your library to buy it so you can check it out.

Focused on Search Strategies
Katcher’s book is narrowly focused to search strategies for MEDLINE queries. Using this book to understand more fully how to search MEDLINE will give you the most precise search results. You will be able to read and print citations to medical literature on your topic, usually with abstracts. If you want the full article, you can either purchase the full text through PubMed for a nominal fee or you can seek it from other sources such as a journal's web site or a public library.

One of the best search strategies I learned in Katcher’s book involves a feature that uses subject headings. This feature goes by the somewhat off-putting term “MeSH,” which stands for “Medical Subject Headings.” Skilled indexers read and assign about a dozen subject headings to most journal articles, letters, and editorials catalogued in MEDLINE. These subject headings come from a master list of more than 19,000 main headings.

Subject headings for diabetes include Diabetes Mellitus, Non-Insulin-Dependent; Diabetes Mellitus, Insulin-Dependent; Diabetic Nephropathies; Diabetic Neuropathies; Diabetic Foot; Diabetic Retinopathy; Pregnancy in Diabetes; and Diabetes, Gestational.

Guided by Katcher’s book, you will be able to effectively use MEDLINE and stay as up-to-date as your doctor. And if diabetes is your disease, that’s something you need to do. 

Related Links:

Access MEDLINE through PubMed.

Additional MEDLINE resources at MEDLINE Web Sites

This article appeared originally on the, which is no longer on-line.

    David Mendosa is a freelance journalist and consultant specializing in diabetes and lives in Boulder, Colorado. When he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in February 1994, he began to write entirely about that condition. His articles and columns have appeared in many of the major diabetes magazines and websites. His own website, David Mendosa’s Diabetes Directory, established in 1995, was one of the first and is now one of the largest with that focus. Every month he also publishes an online newsletter called “Diabetes Update.” Twice weekly he writes for his blog at He is a coauthor of What Makes My Blood Glucose Go Up...And Down? (New York: Marlowe & Co., August 2003, and second American edition coming July 10, 2006, and other publishers in the U.K., Australia, and Taiwan).

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