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Health Sciences Systematic Reviews

Guidance for conducting health sciences systematic reviews.

Develop a Research Question

Systematic reviews aim to answer a specific research question.

  • A SR research question should be focused, answerable, and well-formulated.
  • A well-formulated SR question should be focused enough that a comprehensive search strategy to locate all relevant literature is possible. 
  • PICO is the most popular framework utilized for clinical research questions.
PICO Format for Formulating an Evidence Question
  PICO Component Tips for Building Question Example
P Patient population or problem

How would I describe this group of patients?

Balance precision with brevity. 

In patients with heart failure from dilated cardiomyopathy who are in sinus rhythm . . 
I Intervention (a cause, prognostic factor, treatment, etc.)

Which main intervention is of interest?

Be specific.

. . . would adding anticoagulation with warfarin to standard heart failure therapy . . .
C Comparison intervention (if necessary) 

What is the main alternative to be compared with the intervention?

Be specific. 

. . . when compared with standard therapy alone . . .
O Outcomes (measurable)

What do I hope the intervention will accomplish? 

What would this exposure really effect? 

Be specific. 

. . . lead to lower mortality or morbidity from thromboembolism? Is this enough to be worth increased risk of bleeding? 



In addition to the resources below, please consult the resources on the Standards page of this guide.

Question Frameworks for Qualitative & Other Types of SRs

PICO is the most popular framework utilized for SRs about clinical interventions. However, if your research question is qualitative or does not pertain to a clinical intervention, consider using one of the question frameworks outlined in the two documents below. 

Is Your Question Right for a Systematic Review?

Not all questions are appropriate for a systematic review. Depending on your question, another type of review, such as a scoping review or literature review, may be more appropriate. 

A systematic review research question should be a well-formulated clearly defined clinical question, commonly in PICO format.