Medical writing is hard. It’s tricky, technical, and sometimes exceptionally tedious. Suppose you chose literature reviews as your niche or form part of the regulatory staff selected for clinical evaluations. In that case, I’m sure you have experienced the moment when you realize your sanity has been lost forever trying to ensure all the reference tables add up and match the Prisma flow chart (yes, re-doing the counts, again and again, is totally normal. Right?).
Anyway, a literature review typically generates hundreds, if not thousands, of datasets. Without proper organization and a deep understanding of the different tasks at hand, you might wave goodbye to your deadlines as they pass you by.
Today we are reviewing essential tools to help you execute a high-quality literature review. We will not review writing programs like Pages and Word – we assume you’ve already got those down.
Note: we do not earn commissions or are affiliated with the following; they are just some of our favorites and the tools we use daily to produce high-quality, compliant literature review reports.
The Medical Literature Review
A medical literature review is typically done for clinical evaluations or market research reports. Although they don’t differ much from traditional literature reviews done in the social sciences or for research papers and PhDs, the databases and research tools used are a little different, mainly regarding the databases used.
Literature Search Databases
While multiple databases are available, most medical writers stick to the big four: PubMed, Embase, Cochrane, and Google Scholar. The latter is kind of a dark horse but is gaining ground, and many companies now want it included in their search.
Unfortunately, the primary databases used for medical literature reviews are not open-access journals – to access papers, the user must frequently purchase the article.
PubMed is probably the most frequently used by medical writers and one of the most accessible databases to search. It contains over 35 million citations in biomedical and health sciences and is run by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). However, it is mainly a depository of Medline records.
The PubMed database supports long search strings filled with Boolean operators and citation marks. In addition, it contains various filters, making it an excellent database for narrowing down or opening up your search terms. It also allows truncated terms to cast a giant net, ensuring you catch all the results you need for your lit review.
PubMed does not provide full-text articles, but it does provide links to third-party sites with full texts.
PubMed supports various options for downloading your results and makes it easy to export citations.
Embase is another prominent player in scholarly literature databases. Like PubMed, Embase supports long search strings, boolean operators, citation marks, and truncation.
Unlike PubMed, Embase requires a user account and is not freely available. It boasts fewer search filters than PubMed, and you will generally need to review more articles manually to filter out the relevant ones.
The Cochrane Library is a collection of databases, primarily the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials are the two most commonly used.
The Cochrane search engine is more straightforward than Embase and Pubmed and requires a little fiddling to understand it adequately. However, it has fewer filters, and it is generally wiser to use simple search terms than longer strings.
The Cochrane database is excellent for reviewing articles
The clinical trial results are typically linked to clinicaltrials.gov (see below), although a few trials are only found here.
Google Scholar is a great place to look up citations and check for full-text availability. However, as a search engine, it is a little more complicated than the usual databases, as you get thousands of results, and the filtering options are limited.
Data export is tricky and requires practice.
However, if you already have your citations or you’re looking for something particular, Google Scholar can be a God-send.
Clinicaltrials.gov boasts almost half a million clinical trials worldwide – it is a great place to find clinical trials for medical devices and IVDs.
The search engine requires simpler search terms without operators, and it is easiest to search by manufacturer or device type to ensure you get relevant results.
Many clinical trials listed do not include results because the manufacturer has yet to post them or because the trial is in progress. Still, much information can be gleaned from the trials included here, especially for state-of-the-art and market research reports.
Once your literature searches are complete and you have all your literature, you need to organize it and subsequently reference it in your report. If you are dealing with 30 citations or less, handling your references manually might seem like the best option, but any more than that, and you really need some reference management system.
More importantly, many clients and companies want reference lists in a specific format and require full search results, so reference management is essential.
Perhaps the single most helpful reference management program is good ol’ Microsoft Excel.
Most databases allow citation export in CSV or even Excel file formats that can be quickly exported to Excel and organized in various ways.
The most traditional way of organizing citations is to export each search as a CSV file and create an Excel file with a sheet for each search. The exported CSV file will include all the citation details, and you can easily organize the references by search ID.
Doing it that way ensures a clear overview of each search, and you can easily add the citation status to the file, clearly marking which articles were included and which were excluded.
Once you have all your literature organized, you need to reference it in your reports. While doing it manually can work with few references, using a reference manager will make your life easier (and save your sanity).
The overall best option is EndNote. It includes advanced options for reference management and organization and integrates directly with Word, making it very easy to cite as you write.
The major downside to EndNote is the price tag – a full license is USD 249. The full license is arguably worth it for any medical writer, but understandably it is not affordable for everyone.
Another disadvantage to EndNote is the steep learning curve. EndNote is not a program you can jump into; it requires some time to understand.
A great alternative to EndNote is Mendeley, a free citation manager that fully integrates with Word and makes it easy to import and use your citations.
Mendeley is much more user-friendly than EndNote, and the open access makes it an excellent option for anyone looking for a reference manager that can be used on day one.
As mentioned at the top of this article, ensuring all your numbers and tables match up can be a pain in the butt. Enter the calculator.
Whether you use an old-school analog calculator, a digital one, or Excel, you need something to help you tally up your search results, excluded articles, duplicates, etc.
While not a tool in the traditional sense, having good organizational skills is a critical part of the toolbox required for literature reviews.
Managing datasets, citations, tables, article counts, and references requires serious mental space and starting your project with good organization. However, an idea of where everything goes will significantly improve the quality of your finished work.
Not to mention, being able to deliver clean, organized, easy-to-understand files to your client will impress them and come back to you over and over.