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Searching for Health Sciences Research

Learn how to create a searchable question to find and access literature to help answer your clinical question.

Formulating a Question

At this step of the process, you are formulating the question based on the patient situation or research topic. REMEMBER: Your problem will guide your question and whether you will use PICOT or other tools to help you formulate your question. If your topic leads to a Qualitative question, see the Qualitative Research guide to help you form your question.

Additionally, identifying whether your topic is a background or foreground question will inform where you will search and what type of research methods you should look for and use.

What Type of Question Am I Asking?

Background Questions

A background question addresses a knowledge gap. It is asked by those who are relatively inexperienced with a topic or when they encounter a problem for the first time (Booth, 2006). It may be asking basic information about a topic of interest.

For Example:

  • What is neuropathic pain in patients with diabetes?\
  • How does acetominophen work in the body?
  • What is capsacin?

Background questions can generally be answered by using authoritative information, such as a Point of Care database (such as DynaMed or UpToDate), evidence-based textbooks or medical encyclopedias, or a reliable online health information source (such as MedlinePlus or the NIH). 

Foreground Questions

A foreground question addresses clinical decision-making. The clinician asks a foreground question when there are two or more competing options and must make a clinical decision. The level of prior knowledge with the topic must be greater to be able to pose this type of question. (Booth, 2006)

It asks for specific knowledge to inform clinical decisions or actions, and must take into consideration the patient and the desired clinical outcome. (Weinfeld & Finkelstein, 2005)

For Example:

  • Will acetaminophen or capsacin cream control neuropathic pain in a patient with diabetes?

You will use "PICO" (see next page) to help you create an answerable clinical question that will inform your search.

Qualitative Questions

A qualitative question is asking why and how. It is looking for meaning and perspectives of the population of interest. See our Qualitative Research guide to find out more about qualitative questions.

For Example:

  • How do patients having neuropathic pain experience the pain management experience from attending pain management clinics?
  • Why do families choose palliative care for their dying relative?
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