Posing the research question: not so simple

Can J Anaesth. 2009 Jan;56(1):71-9. doi: 10.1007/s12630-008-9007-4. Epub 2008 Dec 24.


Purpose: The success of any research process relies, in part, on how well investigators are able to translate a clinical problem into a research question-a task that is not so simple for novice investigators. The PICOT approach requires that the framing of the research question specify the target Population, the Intervention of interest, the Comparator intervention, key Outcomes, and the Time frame over which the outcomes are assessed. This paper describes the use of the PICOT structure in framing research questions and examines PICOT criteria as applied to the anesthesia literature. We also provide a roadmap for applying the PICOT format in identifying and framing clear research questions.

Methods: In addition to searching MEDLINE for the literature on framing research questions, we performed a systematic review of articles published in four key anesthesia journals in 2006, including Anesthesiology, Anesthesia & Analgesia, the British Journal of Anaesthesia, and the Canadian Journal of Anesthesia.

Results: Three hundred thirteen articles (n = 313) were included in this review, with the following distribution by study design: 139 (44%) randomized controlled trials, 129 (41%) cohort studies, and 45 (15%) case-controlled, cross-sectional studies or systematic reviews. Overall, 96% (95% confidence interval: 91,100) of articles did not apply the PICOT approach in reporting the research question.

Conclusions: The PICOT approach may be helpful in defining and clearly stating the research question. It remains to be determined whether or not compliance with the PICOT style, or any other format for framing research questions, is associated with a higher quality of research reporting.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesiology*
  • Biomedical Research*
  • Humans
  • Patient Selection
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Research Design
  • Treatment Outcome