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What Are the Most Effective Types of PICO Questions?

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The right PICO questions help you identify the best evidence available to provide lasting solutions to critical problems and situations. One of the most effective methods of evidence-based practice (EBP) in the fields of health and science is the PICO model.

So, before you even think about formulating a PICO research question, understand what the PICO model is and why it’s so important.

What Is PICO?

PICO is the short form of ‘Population, Intervention, Comparison, and Outcome.’

It can also be written as PICOT, with the letter ‘T’ standing for ‘Time.’ This mnemonic framework is your literature review strategy that enables you to research carefully and efficiently.

So, what’s the right PICO question format? If you’re new to this research model, it’s important to study the numerous examples available on the internet and other resources to get an idea of how it’s meant to look. You should also review the various EBP examples available to acquaint yourself with the practice.

Main Types of PICO Questions

There are five main types of PICO questions that you can use to carry out your literature review:

  • Intervention/therapy
  • Etiology
  • Diagnosis/test
  • Prognosis/prediction
  • Meaning questions

Note that these questions should be guided by the acronym so that you can break them down into smaller and more manageable parts. However, some PICO questions may not have all the parts of the acronym because they depend on the reason for the literature review.

Intervention/Therapy Questions

These questions gather information that you can use to determine the most effective form of intervention. For example, say you’re looking for information about treating dermatitis.

Although you’ve recommended oral drugs, like corticosteroids and injectable dupilumab, your patient may insist on other methods of treatment, like phototherapy. So, your PICO question will be comparing the two treatment options.

Here are the elements of your question:

  • P: Dermatitis patient
  • I: Phototherapy
  • C: Oral and injectable drugs
  • O: Treating dermatitis

You can ask: In adult patients with dermatitis, is phototherapy more effective than oral or injectable drugs in treating the condition?

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Diagnosis/Diagnostic Test Questions

Your diagnosis question will lead you to accurate information about the correct diagnosis or diagnostic test for a medical condition. Make sure that the research you review offers you real-life diagnostic tests and methods.

For instance, you may receive a patient with a history of severe migraines. After talking to her about her migraines, you suspect that she has irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), so it’s important to determine the most effective test for IBS.

Although fecal testing has been the most popular test for this condition, some experts have expressed their misgivings about it. The second closest option is the blood test. Your PICO question will be comparing these two tests:

  • P: Patient with IBS
  • I: Blood test
  • C: Feces test
  • O: Accurate diagnosis of IBS

Your PICO question is: Can a blood test give more accurate results than a fecal test in diagnosing IBS?

Etiology Questions

This question will help you to gather research that provides you with information about the greatest risk factors and causes of a medical condition. For instance, you need this question to determine the main cause of dermatitis (this example is unconnected from our earlier dermatitis example):

  • P: Dermatitis patient
  • I: None
  • C: Is body lotion a higher risk factor than the overactive immune system?
  • O: Developing dermatitis

Your PICO question is: Does changing your body lotion increase the risk of developing dermatitis more than the overactive immune system?

Prognosis Questions

A prognosis question determines the clinical sequence over a specific period and possible complications of a disease. For instance, a patient whose family has a history of obesity and who is addicted to fast food is concerned about how overconsumption of carbohydrates will affect his efforts to maintain a healthy body weight.

Here’s the breakdown of your PICO question:

  • P: Patient
  • I: Overconsumption of carbs
  • C: None
  • O: Maintaining a healthy weight

Your question is: Does overconsumption of carbohydrates hamper efforts to maintain a healthy weight?

‘Meaning’ Questions

‘Meaning’ PICO questions help you make sense of a patient’s experience. For instance, if your patient is a school-aged child who’s showing signs of obesity, your PICO question can help you determine if school-based physical programs help reduce cases of overweight students compared with schools with no physical activity programs.

  • P: Students
  • I: School-based physical activities
  • C: No physical activities at school
  • O: Reduction of obesity cases in kids

Your PICO question should be: Does a school-based physical program help to reduce cases of overweight students compared to schools with no physical programs?

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