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Michigan State University

MSU Program in Public Health: Choosing a Research Question

General guide for resources useful to the MSU Program in Public Health.

Using the PICO framework

To construct clinical questions, researchers will often use what is called the PICO framework. To create a question using PICO, you’ll fill out the following table based on your interests or research, as in this example:


Research Interest

P = Patient/Population/problem

Rising levels of drug overdose deaths in the Michigan population

I = Intervention

Incentivizing primary care doctors to prescribe non-opioid painkillers

C = Comparison (what are you comparing your intervention to? Do you want to know if it’s more effective than another intervention? Or if it’s more effective than doing nothing?)

(In this case, you might have an implicit comparison, means that you're asking whether the intervention is more effective than doing nothing)

O = outcome (how will you know whether your intervention works? What outcome are you hoping for?)

Statistically significant reduction in deaths caused by drug overdose in Michigan

Once you've filled in the table, you should be able to formulate a good clinical question. For the example above, the resulting research question might be: 
Can incentivizing primary care doctors to prescribe non-opioid painkillers significantly reduce the rate of death by drug overdose in Michigan? 
Some versions of this framework include other factors than the ones above: for example, you might see people using the PICO(T) framework, where T stands for Time or Type of study question. The PICO version is the simplest to use; once you know how it works, you can use other versions as well, if they seem useful to you.
Look at the sites on the right side of this page for worksheets and further explanations for creating a PICO question.

Some Factors to Consider When Writing a Research Question

You can use the acronym FINER to help you think about what is important in designing a good research project and posing a good question. FINER stands for: 


Feasible: A good research question has to be possible to research within the span of time you have, and using the resources you have. If you have only a semester or two, think about how to narrow your research question so that you can complete it within the time you have.


Interesting: A good research question will be about a topic that contributes to the purpose of your field. Your research will be about improving and promoting public health, so any question you ask has to be related to that goal.


Novel: Don’t reinvent the wheel. Even if you are very interested in a particular question, don’t research it if someone else already has, unless you think you can provide a new insight on what is already known.


Ethical: There are many research questions that would be feasible, interesting, and novel to investigate but might endanger your research participants. This could be because they are asked to reveal sensitive information that could impact their lives negatively, because they aren’t given the benefit of a treatment that’s already known to be effective, or because participation in the study itself might be harmful. For example, even though public health is interested in issues of drug addiction, it would be unethical for a researcher to interview subjects who are currently using illegal substances if doing so could get the subjects arrested or imprisoned.


Relevant: Relevance is like a more specific kind of thinking about why your research is interesting to other people in your field. How will the answer to your question specifically help patients or practitioners? For example, you might want to look at how body weight is discussed or portrayed in a particular teen magazine. When you think about your research question, you’ll want to think about who the information will help: will it help primary care doctors talk about body weight with teenage patients? Will it help people to design better treatment programs for teen patients with eating disorders? If you can’t think of any patient or practitioner group that could potentially find your research useful, your question may not be a relevant one.

Websites About PICO