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What is a database?

Learn how to use some of the major health databases to find the best available evidence.

This guide does not include all health databases - a full list can be obtained via the library home page.

Find databases

  • From the Library home page select the Databases tab.
  • If you know which database you would like to search, type the name into the search box and click the magnifying glass icon.
  • If not, select the Browse the database guide to get a list of recommended databases.
  • Your Expert Help Guide may also contain further suggestions

Common features

Most databases have the following features:

  • Basic or advanced search screens
  • Combine search terms
  • Limit or refine options
  • Save, print, email and export options
  • Ability to create a personal account that provides extra functionality such as save search results and set up alerts

Find Full-Text

  • If no direct link available to the full-text, click on the La Trobe 'Find Full Text' icon
  • If not successful, search for the title of the article or the journal via the library home page and follow the links to the full text
  • If not held by the Library, request the article via Document Delivery Services (this is a free service)


All databases have help functions - usually located in the top right of the screen. The use of search operators and features can vary across databases, so check the help screen if you are not sure.

Help button located in the top right corner of a database

Subject headings v Keywords

Some health databases such as Medline, CINAHL, Embase, PsycINFO & PubMed provide two ways of searching - keyword searching and subject heading searching


  • How you typically search the Web. 
  • Use the key words or phrases (include alternative spellings or synonyms) that best describe your topic
  • Familiar way to search but as terms can appear in any context, not all articles may be relevant

Subject Headings

  • Many databases use a thesaurus, enabling a more targeted search. Subject experts assign a subject heading or tag that best describes the articles. You retrieve only the records which list the subject heading you have selected.
  • No need to think of synonyms or alternative spellings for your topic.
  • Returns more precise results BUT may miss some relevant and more recent articles.

Research Tip

  • Use both keyword searching AND subject heading searching to get better results. This is known as structured or systematic searching. It ensures a comprehensive literature search.
  • While this method of searching may seem more laborious, it’s important to conduct a thorough search of the literature in order to find the best available evidence for your patient or client.

View this video from University of Sydney to learn more -

Using keywords & subject headings University of Sydney Library (YouTube)