Before you even begin to worry about how to search for articles, reports, or books, you must first develop a focused question, and then break your question into essential, searchable components. The information below gives a very basic overview of these processes.
Figuring out what question you are asking--whether it is part of a research and writing assignment or arising within a clinical practice setting--is one of the hardest parts of the searching process. While some questions take an obvious form, such as 'why does my patient have numbness in her legs?', more often, questions arise from problems that have to separated out from a lot of contextual information. Whether the question is easily identifiable or the question takes a little effort to identify, framing your information need as a question is critical to being able to find the information necessary to answer the question and resolve the problem.
Example 1: Paper for a Course: Argument paper on Ethics in Health Care
While you are in school, you may feel that having to write a paper to fulfill an assignment is the primary problem. However, you ultimately have to write the paper, and once you select the topic or perspective you will write about (which may require help from your professor if you're having trouble choosing a topic), you have to frame the topic area as a problem and then phrase your problem as a question (Booth, 2008). This means going from the broad (the topic) to the specific (the question). Below is an example.
In this example, if it were for an argument paper, you would need to take a stance on the topic. However, the important step of deciding on the question would be completed.
Example 2: Clinical Problem
Clinical problems arise naturally from the context of care. They are generally problems that are specific to a single patient or that arise from long-term observation of patients. Below is one example of a clinical 'problem' that you identify from long-term observation.
Clinical patient care and practice questions can and should be broken down into essential components to make the information-seeking process easier. While it is tempting to type out your research or clinical questions the same way that you would verbalize them in a conversation--such as typing 'how do you/i' or 'what is' into a search bar--with research questions, it is not effective, and within databases, very likely to result in poor searches.
In the health sciences, the most common way to begin breaking apart a question is to use the PICO(T) format, which breaks a question apart according to:
P – Patient, population, problem, and/or phenomenon
I – Intervention or Exposure
C – Comparison (optional)
O – Outcome (optional)
T – Time (optional)
In essence, using the PICO format, you turn your question into a set of simple descriptors that you can use to search for research reports and articles that will answer your question. Although the process of breaking a question apart using PICO(T) is described here as a way to more effectively search for research to answer your question, the PICO(T) method also helps you focus your question further.
Keep in mind that: