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Search strings for the study of putative occupational determinants of disease
  1. Stefano Mattioli1,
  2. Francesca Zanardi1,
  3. Alberto Baldasseroni2,
  4. Frederieke Schaafsma3,
  5. Robin MT Cooke1,
  6. Gianpiero Mancini4,
  7. Mauro Fierro1,
  8. Chiara Santangelo1,
  9. Andrea Farioli1,
  10. Serenella Fucksia1,
  11. Stefania Curti1,
  12. Francesco S Violante1,
  13. Jos Verbeek5
  1. 1Section of Occupational Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, Geriatrics and Nephrology, University of Bologna, Italy
  2. 2Tuscany Regional Centre for Occupational Injuries and Diseases (CeRIMP), Florence, Italy
  3. 3Coronel Institute of Occupational Health, Academic Medical Centre, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
  4. 4Department of Prevention, Azienda USL di Ravenna, Ravenna, Italy
  5. 5Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Centre of Good Practices, Knowledge Transfer Team, Cochrane Occupational Health Field, Kuopio, Finland
  1. Correspondence to Francesco S Violante, Unità Operativa di Medicina del Lavoro, Dipartimento di Medicina Interna, dell'Invecchiamento e Malattie Nefrologiche, Università di Bologna, Policlinico S. Orsola-Malpighi, Via Pelagio Palagi 9, I - 40138 Bologna, Italy; francesco.violante{at}


Objective To identify efficient PubMed search strategies to retrieve articles regarding putative occupational determinants of conditions not generally considered to be work related.

Methods Based on MeSH definitions and expert knowledge, we selected as candidate search terms the four MeSH terms describing ‘occupational disease’, ‘occupational exposure’, ‘occupational health’ and ‘occupational medicine’ (DEHM) alongside 22 other promising terms. We first explored overlaps between the candidate terms in PubMed. Using random samples of abstracts retrieved by each term, we estimated the proportions of articles containing potentially pertinent information regarding occupational aetiology in order to formulate two search strategies (one more ‘specific’, one more ‘sensitive’). We applied these strategies to retrieve information on the possible occupational aetiology of meningioma, pancreatitis and atrial fibrillation.

Results Only 20.3% of abstracts were retrieved by more than one DEHM term. The more ‘specific’ search string was based on the combination of terms that yielded the highest proportion (40%) of potentially pertinent abstracts. The more ‘sensitive’ string was based on the use of broader search fields and additional coverage provided by other search terms under study. Using the specific string, the numbers of abstracts needed to read to find one potentially pertinent article were 1.2 for meningioma, 1.9 for pancreatitis and 1.8 for atrial fibrillation. Using the sensitive strategy, the numbers needed to read were 4.4 for meningioma, 8.9 for pancreatitis and 10.5 for atrial fibrillation.

Conclusions The proposed strings could help health care professionals explore putative occupational aetiology for diseases that are not generally thought to be work related.

  • Bibliometrics
  • PubMed
  • utilisation
  • disease
  • aetiology
  • evidence-based practice
  • methods
  • occupational medicine
  • methods
  • occupational health practice
  • computers and information technology

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial License, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non commercial and is otherwise in compliance with the license. See: and

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Supplementary materials


  • Funding INAIL (Istituto Nazionale per l'Assicurazione contro gli Infortuni sul Lavoro) Direzione Regionale Emilia-Romagna, Bologna, Italy; ISPESL (Istituto Superiore per la Prevenzione e la Sicurezza del Lavoro), Rome, Italy; Regione Emilia-Romagna (Emilia-Romagna Regional Administration), Bologna, Italy; and the University of Bologna provided funding for this study.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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  • Correction
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