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Doctor of Nursing Practice

1. What is PICO?

What is a PICO question?

PICO is a framework for structuring a clinical question by separating it into four components. Framing the PICO helps you identify some of the keywords you will use in searching databases. 

P = What are the significant characteristics of the patient or the population?

I = What intervention are you considering?

C = Are you considering another intervention as a comparison to the first?

O = What is the desired outcome of the intervention(s)?

Time is sometimes a fifth element of PICO.

(T) = How much time does it take for an intervention to reach an outcome?

Below is a refresher on creating search terms.

2. How to Search with PICO

Once you've created your PICO question, it's time to search. The first thing you need to do is create alternative/similar terms for your question's main concepts/terms. The chart below is an example:

In PACU patients, will playing soft music in the PACU as an adjunct to standard care result in lower reported pain scores when compared to standard care alone?


PACU patients

PAR (post-anestheia recovery)

post-operative patients

soft music

music therapy

soothing music

standard care

no music

lower pain scores

pain relief

better pain coping

improved pain management


In the databases ...

To start searching, begin with two pieces of your PICO question, such as P-I or I-O or P-C. You can always as a third PICO term to narrow your results. Using all 4 pieces will often kill your search. Examples:

  • PACU patients AND music therapy
  • Pain management AND soft music
  • PACU patients AND music therapy AND pain score
  • (PACU OR postoperative patients) AND music therapy AND lower pain

If you're doing a comparison with your intervention, you will likely need to do separate searches for each intervention and compare the results yourself. However, you may sometimes be able to find articles specifically comparing interventions.

  • Vs. and Versus are not always searched interchangeably
  • Use compar* in your search to look for compare, comparison, compared, etc

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