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Health Sciences Research

Formulating a Research Idea

Start with a broad topic - it could be a health condition, procedure or tool, a research methodology, or health care policy. Most importantly it should be of interest to you. You can find ideas in text books, medical dictionaries and encyclopedias, review articles, conference proceedings and abstracts, and by checking out the bibliographies in each resource. Also, don't forget that many ideas start by talking with colleagues or professors!

Refining Your Question

A good research question will meet the FINER criteria developed by Hulley et al (2007). It will be:


Feasible - number of subjects, methodology, scope, time, money


Interesting - does the investigator want to study this topic?


Novel - will the study provide new findings or extend, refute, or confirm existing findings?


Ethical - will the institutional review board approve the project?


Relevant - will the study add to the scientific knowledge, clinical practice, health policy?

Hulley S, Cummings S, Browner W, et al. Designing clinical research. 3rd ed. Philadelphia (PA): Lippincott Williams and Wilkins; 2007.

Developing Your Research Question

Why should I formulate a structured research question?

  • To point you in a specific direction
  • To identify your key/main concepts 
  • To help build your literature search strategy
  • To improve your information retrieval
  • To give you a way of evaluating answers

What characterizes a good question?

  • Well-conceptualized
  • Well-developed
  • Relevant
  • Direct and clear
  • Focused
  • Includes all components

Where do questions fit into evidence-based practice?

  1. Formulate the question
  2. Search for the evidence
  3. Appraise the evidence
  4. Apply the results
  5. Evaluate the process

What does an undeveloped question look like?

  • "Is there a benefit in starting a program to prevent elderly clients from falls at home?”

What does a well-formulated question look like?

  • “Is a fall prevention program more effective than education upon discharge from acute care in decreasing the incidence of falls in elderly clients who live independently at home?” (Lou & Durando, 2008, p. 98)

Frameworks for Research Questions

Applying a framework when developing a research question can help to identify the key concepts and determine inclusion and exclusion criteria.

PICo: Population /types of Participants, phenomenon of Interest, Context


Patient/Problem, Intervention, Comparator/Control, Outcome, (Study design)


Patient/Problem, Exposure, Comparison/Control, Outcome


Person, Environment, Stakeholders, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome


Population, Interventions, Professionals/Patients, Outcome, Healthcare Setting


Example: PICO Question

P (Patient, Population, Problem) I (Intervention) C (Comparator) O (Outcome)
How would I describe a group of patients similar to mine?  What main interventions, prognostic factors or exposure are you considering? What is the main alternative to compare with the intervention?  What can you hope to accomplish, measure, improve or effect?


Otherwise healthy children…


exposure to in utero cocaine… 


children not exposed to in utero cocaine…

Result in:

increased risk of learning disabilities?