Over the past few decades, there has been an increasing emphasis on ensuring that health care decisions are based on the best available evidence [1
]. This evidence-based approach to health care attempts to bridge the gap between research and clinical practice [2
]. An important component of this approach is the systematic review, which aims to identify, appraise, summarize, and communicate the results and implications of otherwise unmanageable quantities of research [3
]. These systematic reviews provide a rigorous summary of the best available evidence.
As part of the systematic review process, a systematic and comprehensive search of the literature is undertaken. The aim of this search is to identify all studies addressing a review topic. The major focus of systematic reviews has been studies using quantitative research methods, in particular, the randomized controlled trial (RCT). As a consequence, current search strategies have focused predominantly on RCTs. However, interest in the role of qualitative research within the evidence-based framework is growing [4
]. This interest is witnessed by the growing number of reviews of qualitative research addressing issues such as adaptations to diabetes [6
], anxiety surrounding breast disorders [7
], and parents' perspectives of acute childhood illness [8
Qualitative research has an important role in evidence-based health care, in that it represents the human dimensions and experiences of the consumers of health care. This type of research does not answer questions concerning the effectiveness of health care, rather it provides important information about such things as the appropriateness of care and the impact of illness. It also provides a means of giving consumers a voice in the decision-making process through the documentation of their experiences, preferences, and priorities. The term “qualitative” is used to represent a number of different research methods such as ethnography, phenomenology, and grounded theory. This research differs significantly from experimental research in that it focuses on narrative data rather than numbers. Despite the growing interest in this type of review, only limited attention has been given to how this qualitative information can be incorporated into systematic reviews. Additionally, the current methods used during reviews of experimental research do not translate easily to qualitative research.
One aspect of the difficulty of translating RCT review methods to other types of research is that of database searches for qualitative studies. These difficulties are encountered during searches of the titles of studies listed in databases, their abstracts, and the index terms used to describe their contents. The aim of this paper is to present a few of the difficulties encountered during electronic database searches for qualitative research.