Expert searching using the provider interfaces: what did we learn from the “early adopter” pilot and what happens next?

Published on 28 May 2021, by Lucy Reid

Literature searching, Databases, Resource Discovery

About the learning from the early adopter pilot of the provider interfaces

We know that the decommissioning of HDAS in March 2022 represents one of the biggest changes for NHS knowledge and library services for some years. To understand how best to help colleagues move to using provider interfaces for database searches, HEE funded a six-month pilot to work with library teams to identify what training, support and technologies will help with the transition.

The pilot project was coordinated on behalf of HEE by Emily Hurt and Vicky Price, who worked very closely with leaders of each pilot group.

Who was involved in the pilot?

A total of 32 library services from the East Midlands, East of England, Greater Manchester and Kent, Surrey and Sussex took part in the pilot. Across these services, 98 expert searchers switched from using HDAS to provider interfaces.
Pilot participants were offered:

  • Training on the use of provider interfaces. Platform-specific training was delivered by the providers, and also librarians from the University of Cambridge delivered sessions based on their experience of using provider interfaces.
  • Access to reference management software, including funded access to EndNote and RefWorks as well as free-to-use products (Zotero and Mendeley).

Participants were asked to complete:

  • A baseline demographic survey
  • Pre- and post-switch search experience questionnaires
  • Training evaluations
  • A reference management software evaluation

Towards the end of the pilot period, all participants were invited to take part in a series of After Action Reviews and knowledge sharing sessions.

Key findings

Many pilot participants had concerns about changing their practice, learning new ways of working and the possible impact on productivity and/or the quality of search outputs. Equally, many perceived benefits, including developing new skills, using reference management software and using the additional features of provider interfaces.

Most pilot participants conducted between one and three searches per week.

The average pre-switch time spent completing searches using HDAS was 3 hours 9 minutes. This increased to 3 hours 18 minutes when searchers switched to the provider interfaces.

The librarian-led training delivered by the University of Cambridge was very well received. We learned that provider-led training needs to be better tailored to the needs of NHS searchers.

Peer support and collaborative working proved invaluable. Sharing knowledge and experience was an important element of each pilot group.

Provision of a single point of contact for user support will continue to be critical, and going forwards, service support clearly needs to be extended to include provider interfaces and reference management software.

Pilot participants reported unexpected variation in their experience of using provider interfaces and identified the interface developments most likely to benefit NHS searchers. Reliance on HDAS has meant these needs had not previously been identified or explored.
Reference management software can definitely help with deduplicating results and formatting search outputs, but the pilot identified some practical issues which need to be addressed.

What is HEE doing next?

Taking into account all the learning from the last six months, the following actions have been identified as priorities.

Training for knowledge and library service staff

Database providers are being asked to offer platform-specific training tailored to the needs of searchers in the NHS, including basic and advanced searching. This will be available from July onwards.

HEE is commissioning a series of librarian-led training sessions for those who carry out complex searches. These will be delivered in August and September, and again in January and February.

Peer support and sharing

HEE will support the sharing of good practice through signposting, blogposts, case studies and additional resources, hosted on the new KLS website.

HEE will strengthen opportunities for peer support and learning through forums, network events, training and other methods.

Provision for non-librarian searchers

The focus of this pilot was librarians as the primary users of HDAS. We anticipate that most search needs of many end-users will be met by the new national discovery service, to be launched in autumn 2021. However, we know some end-users will still need to carry out advanced and complex searches using the provider interfaces.

HEE will work with NICE to communicate with HDAS users from September, providing information about the discontinuation of the service and signposting alternatives.

HEE will work with volunteers to co-produce signposting guides for end users and resources which can be used locally to train users of provider interfaces.

Technical developments

To help make the switch from HDAS easier, all three database providers are being asked to prioritise the following developments:

  • “Title/Abstract” search field
  • Standard ‘HDAS-like’ output format, available in Microsoft Word, PDF, Microsoft Excel and RIS as a minimum
  • Autosave function

HEE will also work with providers and OpenAthens to reduce the number of accounts needed across interfaces.

Full text linking in provider interfaces and reference management will be improved by the introduction of EBSCO’s Full Text Finder and Third Iron’s LibKey over the coming months.

Reference management software

All library staff with an NHS OpenAthens account will be provided with access to RefWorks (as a second phase, we hope it will be feasible to offer access to library service users as well).

RefWorks will be configured with OpenAthens authentication and enhanced full-text linking using LibKey, and an ‘HDAS-like’ output format will be implemented.

Training and support for using reference management software will be provided.

HEE will seek to negotiate discount pricing for those wishing to buy EndNote locally. The desktop client version of EndNote was highly regarded by pilot participants and offers advanced functionality for those doing large volumes of searches, but unfortunately cannot be made available via a web-based national subscription.

Engagement with database providers

With NICE, HEE has started to engage with our database providers to include more clearly defined requirements in contract monitoring processes, and to influence interface developments based on librarian feedback.

When National Core Content is next reprocured, we will investigate options for reducing the number of interfaces needed to access the required range of bibliographic databases.

Service desk support

HEE will work with NICE and providers to develop an integrated support desk function to cover enquiries relating to database provider interfaces and RefWorks as well as the national discovery service, link resolver and OpenAthens.

Communications and engagement

The pilot has underlined the importance of working together to solve problems, and of timely and effective communications, to build a shared understanding. This is a time of great change for individuals and services and we want to fully engage with teams through this and other projects.

Exploring new tools and technologies

Separately from the pilot, we have worked with the HEE digital team to review and refine the specification of requirements for expert searchers originally created following the discovery research undertaken by Lagom Strategy. We will continue to consider which tools and technologies could potentially help those searching multiple datasets, but the actions above are the priority.

What should library teams do next?

A key recommendation from the pilot is that knowledge and library service staff new to provider interface searching should allow time over the coming months both for training and post-training practice.

Over the next few weeks, look out for information about:

  • Training opportunities
  • Reference management software
  • Co-production of training resources for end-users
  • Case studies from those who have already switched from HDAS


The early adopter pilot and feedback from the After Action Reviews and knowledge sharing sessions have been invaluable in informing our thinking and planning. We are very grateful to all those who participated. Particular thanks go to the group leaders Affra Al Shamsi, Heather Gardner, Paula Elliott, Steve Glover and William Henderson, as well as Isla Kuhn, Veronica Phillips, Eleanor Barker and Jo Milton at Cambridge Medical Library.

We welcome your further suggestions, just us know via [email protected].

The full pilot report is available.