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PICO explained

PICO is a technique that uses four elements to formulate a good clinical question that returns relevant results in a database search. The technique helps clarify the question - the result is finding a better answer. Keyword brainstorming will help find synonyms used in the database (for example teenagers or adolescents or high school students).


P = patient, population, or problem

  • a specific age cohort (adults, older people, adolescents, infants)

  • a specific population (home-bound patients, hospitalized, nursing home patients)

  • a specific health cohort (COPD, healthy, systemic lupus erythematosus)

  • specific problem (hospital-acquired infection, fall injuries  in hospitalized patients, CPR methods)

I = intervention

  • What is the treatment or intervention is in question?  (medication, specific therapy, specific procedure)

C = comparison

  • What is an alternate treatment or intervention for the same treatment or intervention? (holistic medicine versus pharmaceuticals, heat therapy versus cold therapy, cat scan versus MRI)

0 = outcome

  • What do you want to accomplish? (symptom or pain management, better healing time, safest method, survival)

PICO in action

Here is an example of a PICO question and resulting search terms. 

In adults with systemic lupus erythematosus, will drugs manage pain symptoms more effectively than complementary or alternative medicine therapies?

- adults with systemic lupus erythematosus 

- drugs

- complementary and alternative medicine

- manage pain symptoms

Search terms:

P - systemic lupus erythematosus is listed as subject heading Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic in CINAHL

- drugs

- alternative medicine, complementary medicine (or be more specific: traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic, supplements, chiropractic, homeopathy, naturopathy, massage)

- pain management, pain control, pain therapy 

PICO Tutorial

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