Health Law Research Tips

Updated Oct. 14, 2009
Prepared by Mary Whisner


Papers for health law classes often cross disciplines. For instance, you need to find cases about medical condition and you need to know a little about the condition itself. Or you need to find news stories about an issue and the legislation that addresses the issue.  Or you want to find what doctors and ethicists say about a treatment decision as well as what legislation provides.

One challenge is information overload. There are so many databases and indexes and journals and books that it's hard to choose where to start or sort through what you find. This guide offers some tips and suggests just a few sources. If you want more detailed guides, go here

Medical Literature

By for the most important index of medical journals (including related subjects) is PubMed, produced by the National Library of Medicine. The largest component of PubMed is MEDLINE. (If you care about the difference click here.) 

UW students: it's best to go in through the UW Libraries page: you'll get better links to articles. If you're off campus, be sure to click on the off-campus access link at the top of the page.

You can use the user guides to learn how to put together searches, but it's set up so that anyone can type in some keywords and get relevant results. For instance, searching for informed consent malpractice turned up:

A sidebar links to "Related Articles" -- so one search can lead to more.

TIP: Look for "Review Articles," articles where an author reviews the literature, citing many other people's studies.

For many more databases, see the HealthLinks pages from the UW's Health Sciences Library.


Law Journals

Full-text articles:

  • Law students, use LexisNexis or Westlaw
  • Non-law students, use LexisNexis Academic.

Find all these linked from Law Library's homepage.

Full-text Databases

Searching full-text databases is very powerful. But you can sometimes get too much. There might be a lot of articles with the term you entered that are mostly on a different topic. In an index, you have the benefit of people who have looked at the articles and assigned subject headings.

E.g., if you search for "tuberculosis" in full-text law reviews on LexisNexis, the search fails because there are too many hits:

If you limit the search to the last six months, you still get over 100 articles -- and the first three are about HPV vaccines, not TB:

If you search LegalTrac, you get fewer hits, but a higher portion are clearly about tuberculosis:

There are ways to focus a full-text search -- for example, requiring your search terms to be in the title of an article, requiring that your terms appear many time (e.g., atleast7(tuberculosis)), requiring that your terms appear in proximity to other terms you care about (e.g., tuberculosis /5 quarantine).


Other Disciplines

Looking for philosophy, business, general magazines? See University Libraries Subject Guides.

Good source for general-interest magazines (Time, The Economist, The New Yorker) and selected scholarly journals: Academic Search Complete, available through University Libraries.



Gallagher Law Library catalog, basic search available from Law Library's homepage, includes books, journals, DVDs, etc., that this library owns. To find an item, note call number and location (e.g., Reference Area or Classified Stacks).

You can also change the scope of the search to include the UW Libraries or the UW Libraries + Summit. (which inlcudes more than 30 college and university libraries in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington and Oregon).

If you find something that isn't available here, you can request it online; delivery times vary.



Government Reports

Check agencies you know are involved in your area, e.g.,

Look for sections on the websites called "Publications," "Resources," or "Library."

The Congressional Research Service is a division of the Library of Congress that prepares research reports for Congress. They often provide an excellent overview of an area, with a balanced discussion of the issues. See the Gallagher guide on Congressional Research Service Reports.

Government Accountability Office - GAO is the investigative arm of Congress. Its mission is to "provide Congress with timely information that is objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, nonideological, fair, and balanced."  GAO reports are available on the agency website, on LexisNexis, and on Westlaw. gathers government reports (from around the world) that are "classified, confidential or otherwise withheld from the public."


Nongovernmental Organizations

Look for advocacy groups and research institutes.

One way to find them: Associations Unlimited. E.g., searching for breast cancer, I found information about and links to websites of a variety of groups, including:


International Organizations

For lists of selected international governmental organizations and international nongovernmental organizations, see Researching Health and Human Rights.


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