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Nursing: Formulate a question

Formulate a question

If you are required to choose a research question, try to pick a topic that interests you.

You need to have a broad understanding of your topic or research question to help you search for information and write your assignment. Consider the following before you start searching for information:

  • What do you already know about your topic? What do you need to explore further?
  • Do you need to define any terms or get an overview? Use the course readings, handbooks, dictionaries or introductory books.
  • What types of information do you need (e.g: peer reviewed articles, books, reports, protocols, guidelines etc.)?
  • Does information need to be current?
  • Do any theories apply to your topic?
  • Do you need facts and figures? Try a reliable website or a relevant database.
  • Which parts of your argument need references as supporting evidence?  
  • What are the main concepts in your topic or research question? These will help you decide which keywords to use when searching.

Build your question with PICO

Have you been told to use "PICO"?

The PICO framework can be useful for developing an answerable clinical question. For example:

Is a paleo diet more effective than a Mediterranean diet for weight reduction in obese adults?

P Population OR Patient OR Problem
What are the characteristics of the patient or population? OR
What is the condition or disease you are interested in?
obese adults
I/E Intervention OR Exposure
What do you want to do with the patient (e.g. treat, diagnose, observe etc.)?
paleo diet
C Comparison OR Comparator
What is the alternative to the treatment (e.g.placebo, different drug, surgery)?
mediterranean diet
O Outcome
What is the relevant outcome (e.g. morbidity, complications)?
weight reduction

Use the interactive PICO worksheet to get started with your question, or you can download the worksheet document.

Here are some different frameworks you may want to use:

PICO(T) Population (patient), Intervention, Comparison (control) and Outcome. Add a Timeframe if required. Used particularly for treatment type questions.
PECO(T) A variation of PICO where E= Exposure and T=Timeframe if required.
PIPOH Developed in the context of practice guideline adaptation. Includes P= Professionals/Patients, O= Outcome and H= Healthcare Setting.
SPICE S= Setting (where), P= Perspective (for whom), I= Intervention (what), C= Comparison (compared with what), E= Evaluation (Booth 2006).
SPIDER S= Sample, P= Phenomenon of interest, D= Design, E= Evaluation, R= Research type. Useful for qualitative or mixed method studies (Cooke, Smith and Booth 2012).
ECLIPSE E= Expectations, C= Client group, L= Location, I= Impact, P= Profession, SE= Service (Wildridge & Bell 2002).
PESTLE P= Political, E= Economic, SSocial, TTechnological, E= Environmental, L= Legal (CIPD 2010).

There are a number of PICO variations which can be used for different types of questions, such as qualitative, and background and foreground questions. Visit the EBP Guide to learn more.

See how to focus a question

Next steps

Address a topic <Image, public domain>

Now you have finalised your topic, or research question, you are ready to prepare your search strategy. Click the image to learn how.