Literature Searching

What is a MeSH term?

The Medical Subject Heading (MeSH) is a controlled and hierarchically-organized vocabulary produced by the National Library of Medicine. It is used to give uniformity and consistency to the indexing, cataloging, and searching of biomedical and health-related information in PubMed, MEDLINE, and other NLM databases.

One advantage to using MeSH terms in a search is that all MeSH terms are pre-defined and include synonyms. This is effective for searching for meaning, rather than words that appear in the article title or abstract. For instance, when you search for the MeSH term "telemedicine," it includes the synonyms (i.e. entry terms) "mobile health," "mhealth," "telehealth," and "ehealth."

MeSH vs Textwords

When searching for literature, it is important to use both MeSH terms and textwords (i.e. synonyms gathered from Step 2). This is because not all articles, especially those that are recently published, have been assigned MeSH terms. To ensure you are finding the most recent literature, combine your MeSH terms with textwords using the appropriate Boolean operator (see Step 3). 

MeSH Term Textword
  • contains synonyms, acronyms, and alternate spellings
  • good for precise searching
  • good for established concepts
  • literal search for the terms in a specified field 
  • good for quick searching
  • appropriate for new technology, ideas, concepts
  • good for terms that do not have a MeSH term

How to find MeSH term?

To determine if there is an appropriate MeSH term for a concept, you can search the MeSH database that can be accessed through the PubMed homepage. 


Type a concept in the search bar to see the suggested MeSH terms. For instance, there are 120 MeSH terms that are associated with the concept "diabetes." You can click on each suggested MeSH term to view the scope note which contains a definition, family tree (hierarchy of broader and narrower terms), and entry terms (e.g. synonyms). 

Another quick to find MeSH terms is to find a relevant article on your topic and view its tagged MeSH terms. If an article does not have MeSH terms, it means it hasn't been indexed yet. 


From the example earlier, the concepts can be mapped to the following MeSH terms. 

Concept A

diabetes -> "diabetes mellitus"[MeSH]

Concept B

monile health technology -> "telemedicine"[MeSH], "mobile applications"[MeSH]

Concept C

in-person care -> no MeSH term


MeSH Tools