Defining your question: PICO and PS

A Summary of

Health Evidence (2009). Developing an Efficient Search Strategy. Available from:


This tool, Developing an Efficient Search Strategy using PICO, was created by Health Evidence. It helps users to develop a searchable question, which is a fundamental step in using research evidence to inform decision making. This fillable form helps users articulate a searchable question and document search terms for a search strategy.

This tool helps users define questions for quantitative research (PICO) and qualitative research (PS). The PICO format creates searchable questions that address issues of intervention effectiveness or clinical questions, while the PS format examines questions related to understanding how and why the issue exists. Creating searchable questions involves identifying key words and search terms according to:

  • PICO: Population, Intervention or Exposure (PECO), Comparison, Outcomes; or
  • PS: Population, Situation.

To learn more about PICO and PS, see NCCMT's online learning module, Introduction to Evidence-Informed Decision Making and Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine. To learn more about defining your question, see the webcast, Define. There is evidence that using PICO to create a searchable question retrieves more relevant citations than using a standard database interface alone (Schardt et al., 2007).

This tool consists of two parts:

  • PICO Search Terms Table: For Searchable Quantitative Research Questions
  • PS Search Terms Table: For Searchable Qualitative Research Questions

Users can access this tool along with other resources to support the use of research, such as checklists and flowcharts, from Health Evidence at Tools to support evidence-informed decision making.

Access the Tool

Format of the Tool


Not specified


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Not Specified

Using the Tool

Time for Participation/Completion

Information not available

Additional Resources and/or Skills Needed for Implementation


Steps for Using Method/Tool

The tool, Developing an Efficient Search Strategy using PICO, consists of a table for PICO and one for PS. Each table is a fillable form that provides an example from a clinical question and prompts users to document synonyms or key words and MeSH headings (Medical Subject Headings).

To learn more about MeSH headings, see the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Who is involved

Librarians, project specialists, consultants and others involved in creating search strategies would use this resource.

Conditions for Use

Not specified

Evaluation of the Tool


Has not been evaluated


Not applicable


Not applicable

Methodological Rating

Unknown/No evidence

Development of the Tool


Health Evidence

Method of Development

Information not available

Release Date


Contact Person/Source

Heather Husson
Health Evidence
175 Longwood Road S, Suite 210A
Hamilton ON L8P 0A1

These summaries are written by the NCCMT to condense and to provide an overview of the resources listed in the Registry of Methods and Tools and to give suggestions for their use in a public health context. For more information on individual methods and tools included in the review, please consult the authors/developers of the original resources.

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