OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the performance of tools for authoring patient database queries. DESIGN: Query by Review, a tool that exploits the training that users have undergone to master a result review system, was compared with AccessMed, a vocabulary browser that supports lexical matching and the traversal of hierarchical and semantic links. Seven subjects (Medical Logic Module authors) were asked to use both tools to gather the vocabulary terms necessary to perform each of eight laboratory queries. MEASUREMENTS: The proportion of queries that were correct; intersubject agreement. RESULTS: Query by Review had better performance than AccessMed (38% correct queries versus 18%, p = 0.002), but both figures were low. Poor intersubject agreement (28% for Query by Review and 21% for AccessMed) corroborated the relatively low performance. Subjects appeared to have trouble distinguishing laboratory tests from laboratory batteries, picking terms relevant to the particular data type required, and using classes in the vocabulary's hierarchy. CONCLUSION: Query by Review, with its more constrained user interface, performed somewhat better than AccessMed, a more general tool. Neither tool achieved adequate performance, however, which points to the difficulty of formulating a query for a clinical database and the need for further work.