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HSS 534


One way of focusing your question is by using the PICO format (you may also see PICO(T) or PICOTT). PICO includes several factors that, when searched together, comprise a well-built clinical question. It includes:

  • Patient, Population, and/or Problem - Who or what is your question about?
  • Intervention, Prognostic Factor, or Exposure - How do you want to treat your patient?
  • Comparison - What is the standard of care in this situation? What other treatments have been used in past trials?
  • Outcome - What is the intended result?

You can clarify your intended results at the outset with additional, optional factors:

  • Time - Duration of study, duration between intervention and outcome
  • Type of Question - Therapy, Etiology, Diagnosis, Prognosis, Prevention
  • Type of Study - Meta-Analysis, Systematic Review, Randomized Controlled Trial, Cohort Study, Case Control Study 
 Keep in mind that if you are having a difficult time converting your topic into a question, you may not know enough about it to perform a search! Use some of the Background Knowledge resources in the left column to round out your understanding.


Take the following sample question:

In adult patients with Cardiovascular Disease (CVD), does the consumption of plant-based saturated fats when compared to a monounsaturated fat result in a more improved CVD risk metabolic profile?

This example covers all elements of PICO, and provides us four distinct elements to convert into search terms:

  • Patient - adult patients with Cardiovascular Disease
  • Intervention - consumption of plant-based saturated fats
  • Comparison -  monounsaturated fat
  • Outcome - improved CVD risk profile

In the next section, "Levels of Evidence," you'll learn more about identifying the best possible evidence and the different types of clinical questions.


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