Writing a PICO Question for Nursing Students

Updated: May 23

Putting together a PICO question has been recognized as one of the most essential parts of conducting quality research. But what is a PICO question, and how do you create one?

What is a PICO question?

  1. P: Population

  2. I: Intervention (aka. Treatment)

  3. C: Comparison or Control

  4. O: Outcome

Pico Term

Meaning

Example

Population

​What is common in the group of patients chosen? Are they all the same age/ gender/ with the same medical condition

A group of patients with non-dialysis chronic kidney failure

Intevention

What is common in the group of patients chosen? Are they all the same age/ gender/ with the same medical condition

Eating a low sodium diet

Comparison

Is there another group receiving a different type of treatment? Or perhaps no treatment at all?

Eating a high sodium diet

Outcome

What is achieved from these treatments?

Evaluating the disease progression through proteinuria and albuminuria


Ok, so how do I write a PICO question?

Hold your horses. We know that most schools will encourage you to start your research by writing the PICO question. But.. we believe that starting from a different angle might be more comfortable, especially if you are a student trying to do a systematic review.

We believe that it is smarter for you to pick a topic that you like and do research to see what studies are available. It is useless for you to spend hours perfecting the PICO question about how alien therapy helps diabetics if there are no studies about it. Get it?

Step 1: Think of a topic that you like

This is important because you will spend hours researching, writing and talking about this topic. So finding something that interests you will make things a lot easier.

Let’s say you find renal disease interesting.

Step 2: Conduct a brief research

Once you found your topic of interest, it’s time to do a quick search on google and find out what is linked to this topic in terms of treatment or risk factors. Just by typing renal disease treatment on Google, you will get loads of articles. These articles will vary from explaining the different stages of renal disease, risk factors, treatment options etc.


After reading 2 or 3 items, you should have a good overview of your topic. This topic, in particular, will indicate that patients with renal disease can be divided into those who are on dialysis, and those who aren’t.


And let’s say that you decide to pick the group of people who are not on dialysis. The next step is to do another quick search about the treatment of renal disease without dialysis. This search will highlight several things:

  1. The stage of renal disease

  2. Methods of treatment

Amongst a lot of information, you will notice that most patients in Stage 1 – 4 renal disease can go without dialysis and that many doctors recommend a low sodium diet for these patients.


So now you can put it together and say that you will do research about:

The importance of a low sodium diet on patients with stage 1 -4 renal disease who are not receiving dialysis.

Stage 3: Do some more research

Now go to your preferred search engine and look up articles about this topic. Did you get a lot? Are the articles recent and reliable? If you answered yes to both questions then congrats you are on the right track! If your answer was no, then go back to step 2 and see what other options you have, for example:


Research the effect of smoking on patients with stage 1 -4 renal disease who are not receiving dialysis.


If this does not result in any articles, then you have to go back again and really exhaust all the possible interventions. But for the sake of this blog post, let’s say you were lucky (or smart) and found enough recent and reliable articles on the chosen topic.

Step 4: Formulate the PICO question

From your quick research, you have decided to do your systematic review on The importance of a low sodium diet on patients with stage 1 -4 renal disease who are not receiving dialysis.

Your next step is to put these into the PICO framework.

  1. Population: Patients with Stage 1-4 renal disease who are not receiving dialysis

  2. Intervention: Low sodium diet

  3. Comparison: High sodium diet

  4. Outcome: Better controlled renal disease

So your question will be:

Do adults with stage 1 -4 renal disease who eat a low sodium diet, compared to those who eat a high sodium diet have improved renal function?

Or

In adults with stage 1-4 renal disease is a low sodium diet more effective than a high sodium diet in improving renal function?

Step 5: Submit it

And that’s it. Writing a PICO question is as easy as ABC when you go through the right channels. Once you have the question, make sure that it abides by your school’s requirements and submit it for review.


Ps. Take note of specific school requirements, such as word count in the question.


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