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PICO Search Strategy

Try using this 'PICO' mnemomic device to identify and define the scope of each component of your research question.

For each PICO component, you can find information using a combination of:

a) the background sources listed in the "Encyclopedias, Dictionaries etc." section of this guide, and

b) the results of some simple preliminary CINAHL database searches

In turn, this will help you develop an effective research question (one that is sufficiently specific, focused and answerable), while also identifying appropriate vocabulary to use in your subsequent database searches.

P is for the Patient or the Problem (e.g. a disease or condition) or the Population of interest

I  is for Intervention (e.g. therapy, procedure, drug, exposure, test, strategy) or Indication

C is for Comparison (e.g. compared to an alternative intervention or an experimental control)

O is for Outcome (i.e. the consequence, effect or improvement of interest and the measurement thereof)

Not all research questions will fit into the PICO strategy (e.g. questions asking about etiology, risk factors, frequency), so it's helpful also to consider the:

Type of question (e.g. is your question about therapy; diagnosis; prognosis; etiology; harms; prevention) 

Type of research study most likely to provide answers (e.g. a systematic review; a randomized controlled trial (RCT); a longitudinal study; a qualitative study)

To incorporate these latter considerations, "PICO" is sometimes extended to PICOTT


Other Tools for Developing a Research Question

PICO is just one of several mnemonic devices or 'frameworks' available to help you develop a clinical research question that is well-formed, focused and answerable. Other frameworks are available that support the development of research questions in other disciplines (e.g. social sciences, business) and for other purposes. For consideration of additional methods--including those serving different research purposes, you might take a look at the extensive collection of Frameworks for Research Questions provided by the University of Maryland Library.

More Research Methods & Guidance