Formulating a question using PICO

Often our need for information is not formulated as a question to begin with - but if you don't ask a question, it is probably fair to say you will not get an answer! Asking the right question is an important start to finding the information needed to inform clinical practice.

Structuring the question is the first step. Vague, broad, poorly framed questions will most likely result in lost time and an inability to locate useful evidence. In comparison, asking a specific and focused question enables the development of relevant keywords and an effective search strategy.

Most questions can be broken down into three or four components that describe the population, the intervention or treatment (and sometimes an alternative treatment), and the outcome you want to investigate. This is known as the PICO method, and it is widely used by health researchers, healthcare professionals, and related collaborations such as those in The Cochrane Library, to construct searchable questions that give relevant and precise results.

The table below shows how the PICO method is used.

Population or problem Describe the patient or the relevant group of people
Intervention or treatment Identify the intervention such as a test, drug, or factor that might affect a health outcome
Comparison Identify an alternative strategy if you want to compare one intervention to another
Outcome State the clinical outcome - usually what you and the patient are most concerned about

The acronym is sometimes given as PICOT where T stands for time, type of study, or test; or PECOT where E stands for the exposure group, C for the control group and T for time, type of study, or test.