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Public Health

Guide to library research for evidence-informed public health practice.


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

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? 

For more information about formulating research questions and specific examples of other frameworks, checkout the following presentation: To PICO or not to PICO: What is the question? Frameworks for developing answerable research questions. Presented at Public Health Ontario Grand Rounds.

Refining Research Questions

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)