BACKGROUND: Health technology assessments of surgical interventions frequently require the inclusion of non-randomised evidence. Literature search strategies employed to identify this evidence often exclude a methodological component because of uncertainty surrounding the use of appropriate search terms. This can result in the retrieval of a large number of irrelevant records. Methodological filters would help to minimise this, making literature searching more efficient. METHODS: An objective approach was employed to develop MEDLINE and EMBASE filters, using a reference standard derived from screening the results of an electronic literature search that contained only subject-related terms. Candidate terms for MEDLINE (N = 37) and EMBASE (N = 35) were derived from examination of the records of the reference standard. The filters were validated on two sets of studies that had been included in previous health technology assessments. RESULTS: The final filters were highly sensitive (MEDLINE 99.5%, EMBASE 100%, MEDLINE/EMBASE combined 100%) with precision ranging between 16.7%-21.1%, specificity 35.3%-43.5%, and a reduction in retrievals of over 30%. Against the validation standards, the individual filters retrieved 85.2%-100% of records. In combination, however, the MEDLINE and EMBASE filters retrieved 100% against both validation standards with a reduction in retrieved records of 28.4% and 30.1% CONCLUSION: The MEDLINE and EMBASE filters were highly sensitive and substantially reduced the number of records retrieved, indicating that they are useful tools for efficient literature searching.