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Researching Social Determinants of Health & Health Disparities

Frameworks, resources, and search strategies to support research related to promoting health equity and reducing health disparities

Search Terms

You can use your PICO or concepts defined in another framework as preliminary search terms. 

Maness, S. B., Merrell, L., Thompson, E. L., Griner, S. B., Kline, N., & Wheldon, C. (2021). Social Determinants of Health and Health Disparities: COVID-19 Exposures and Mortality Among African American People in the United States. Public health reports (Washington, D.C. : 1974)136(1), 18–22.


Population - African Americans

Exposure - COVID- 19

Comparator - Non-Hispanic White Americans

Outcome- Mortality rates


Population - African Americans

Interest - COVID- 19 mortality rates

Context - Social determinants of health and health disparities,  

Your search will include both keywords and subject headings. Controlled vocabulary systems, such as the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) or Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), use pre-set terms that are used to tag resources on similar subjects. See boxes below for more information on finding and using subject terms.

Not all databases will have subject heading searching and for those that do, the subject heading categories may differ between databases. This is because databases classify articles using different criteria.

From our example, here are some MeSH terms for:

African Americans: African American (Persons living in the United States having origins in any of the black groups of Africa.)

Entry Terms:

  • African American
  • American, African
  • Black Americans
  • American, Black
  • Americans, Black
  • Black American
  • Afro-American
  • Afro American
  • Afro-Americans
  • Afro Americans
  • African-Americans
  • African-American

Covid-19: COVID-19SARS-CoV-2

Social Determinants of Health: Social Determinants of HealthEpidemiologic Factors

Health Disparities: 

Health Status Disparities (Variation in rates of disease occurrence and disabilities between population groups defined by socioeconomic characteristics such as age, ethnicity, economic resources, or gender and populations identified geographically or similar measures.)

Healthcare Disparities (Differences in access to or availability of medical facilities and services.)

Minority Health (The concept covering the physical and mental conditions of members of minority groups.)

Mortality RatesMortality

  • Most EBSCO databases have a tool to help you discover subject terms. See Academic Search Complete > Subject Terms and Academic Search Complete > Subject Terms: Thesaurus
  • Most ProQuest databases have a tool to help you discover subject terms: See PsycInfo > Thesaurus
  • When you find a useful article, look at the article's Subject Headings (or Subject or Subject Terms), and record them as possible terms to use in a subject term search.

Here is an example of the subject terms listed for a systematic review found in PsycINFO, "Primary care screening for and treatment of depression in pregnant and postpartum women: Evidence report and systematic review for the US Preventive Services Task Force" (2016).

MeSH are standardized terms that describe the main concepts of PubMed/MedLine articles. Searching with MeSH can increase the precision of your search by providing a consistent way to retrieve articles that may use different terminology or spelling variations. 

Note: new articles will not have MeSH terms; the indexing process may take up to a few weeks for newly ingested articles. 

Use the MeSH database to locate and build a search using MeSH.

  Access the Mesh Database from the PubMed homepage under the Explore menu.

To search the MeSH database:

  • Search for 1 concept at a time.
  • If you do not see a relevant MeSH in the results, search again with a synonym or related term.
  • Click on the MeSH term to view to the complete record​, subheadings, broader and narrower terms. 

Build a search from the results list or from the MeSH term record to specify subheadings.

  • Select the box next to the MeSH term or subheadings that you wish to search and click Add to Search Builder.
  • ​You may need to switch AND to OR, depending on how you would like to combine terms.
  • Repeat the above steps to add additional MeSH terms. When your search is ready, click Search PubMed.

Example: Health Disparities & Minority Health Search Strategies

Search Strategies: Boolean, Phrase Searching, Truncation

In addition to using the best keywords, you can increase the effectiveness of your search by using:

  1. Boolean operators
  2. Phrase searching
  3. Truncation

Boolean Operators

Boolean operators, AND, OR, and NOT, are used to combine your keywords. 

And Venn Diagram with an arrow pointing to the area where the two circles overlapAND is used to connect different concepts: "social media" AND "protest movement"

Using AND to connect keywords will decrease your search result numbers, or narrow your search, because the database is searching for sources that contain all of the keywords connected by AND.

OR Venn Diagram with arrows pointed to both circlesOR is used to connect similar concepts: "social media" OR "social networking site" OR Facebook

Using OR to connect similar words will increase your search result numbers, or broaden your search, because the database is searching for sources that contain at least one of the keywords connected by OR.

Not Venn Diagram with an arrow pointing to just one circleNOT will remove any search results that contain a particular keyword: "social media" NOT Pinterest

Using NOT will decrease the number of search results, or narrow our search, because the database will exclude resources with the specified keyword(s) from the results list. 

Phrase Searching

quotation marksEnclose your keywords in quotation marks to search for an exact phrase:

  • "social media"
  • "supermassive black hole"


asteriskTruncation allows you to account for words with variations.

The asterisk(*) is commonly used to truncate a keyword. Place the * where you would like to account for variation: 

  • educat* will retrieve: educate, educated, educating, educator, and education
  • *caution will retrieve caution, precaution
  • behavi*r will retrieve behavior, behaviour 

More Search Strategies: Proximity & Field Searching

Not all databases support proximity searching. You can use these strategies in ProQuest databases such as Sociological Abstracts

*PubMed via does not support proximity searching. MEDLINE via OVID does support proximity searching. 

pre/# is used to search for terms in proximity to each other in a specific order; # is replaced with the number of words permitted between the search terms.

Sample Search: parent* pre/2 educational (within 2 words & in order)

  • This would retrieve articles with no more than two words between parent* and educational (in this order) e.g. "Parent practices and educational achievement" OR "Parents on Educational Attainment" OR "Parental Values, Educational Attainment" etc.

w/# is used to search for terms in proximity to each other in any order; # is replaced with the number of words permitted between the search terms.

Sample Search: parent* w/3 educational (within 3 words & in any order)

  • This would retrieve articles with no more than three words between parent* and educational (in any order)  e.g. "Educational practices of parents" OR "Parents value motivation and education" OR "Educational attainments of Latino parents"

If results are too large or seem irrelevant, you can limit one or more search terms to a specific field.  For example, you can choose to search for important terms in the Title field. 

field searching in ProQuest


A common way to limit search results in PubMed is to use Title/Abstract field searching, which can be conducted using the Advanced Search function.

PubMed Title/Abstract field search example