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Formulating a search question: 1. Formulating a question

A quick guide to introduce you to formulating a search question using PICO

Background and foreground questions

Clinical questions can generally be categorised into two types, background and forground questions. Deciding which type of question you need to answer is essential to helping you decide where you need to look for information.

Watch the video for an introduction to these two main types of questions you are likely to encounter within healthcare and how you can structure an effective forground question of your own using the PICO structure.



Foreground questions can be divided into two categories:

  • Qualitative questions
  • Quantitative questions

Foreground questions can then be further divided into questions that relate to therapy, diagnosis, prognosis, etiology/harm. Identifying which of these sub-types are most relevant for your scenario will help you identify which type of study (i.e. randomised controlled trial, observational study) will help to provide an answer to your clinical question.


Questions relating to treatment (in order to achieve a specific outcome). These questions may look at drugs, surgical intervention(s), dietary changes or psychological therapies. Systematic reviews and randomised controlled trials can be used to answer these types of questions.

Questions relating to the identification of a disease or condition in a patient presenting with specific symptoms.

Questions relating to the progression of a disease or likelihood of a disease occurring.

Questions relating to the causes of a healthcare problem or risk of harm from a specific exposure.

These questions focus on the reducing the likelihood of a particular disease or exposure.

What is PICO?

PICO is a method of searching for evidence, commonly used within health and medicine. It helps to break down a clinical scenario and turn it into a clinical question. Click the 'i' icons in the images below to learn more about how you decide what goes into each section.


You can use the PICO framework to help you structure your foreground question and enable you to find the information you need most effectively. 

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