Finding information on a particular topic means that you need to do a good job picking the terms and phrases that you want to search.
Begin by framing your question. Write it down. Take that question and pull out the important nouns to help you find the right search terms.
As a starting place, just looking at the nouns in your question works well with many research papers, but nursing research is different and necessitates a more focused method of keyword selection.
Usually medical research involves a clinical inquiry about a health care intervention that promotes healing and/or well-being for a patient. To articulate a clinical inquiry use the PICOT method to determine which words and phrases you can use as search:
P-person: Who is the patient or population that the inquiry surrounds? Infants, college students, and palliative care patients, are good examples of describing a population with just one word or phrase. Or try to pick a characteristic of the patient that is distinctive, such as having a specific condition.
I- intervention or indicator: What type intervention or process is being considered to help the patient? Or, if more applicable, is there an indicator that measures the patient’s progress, such as blood pressure or weight?
C-comparison: Is there an alternative treatment that can be used as a comparison? Can a placebo be compared, or is there a standard treatment that you can use as a benchmark against the intervention that you are proposing?
O-outcome: What is the effect of the desired outcome? Specifically stating what you hope to achieve may more accurately focus the search for evidence in literature. For example, “quality improvement” or “recovery of function” describe positive outcomes.
T-time: What is the timeframe?
Just as it helps to write out your research question, it helps to physically write out your PICOT terms and phrases so that you can easily return to them later. When you are thinking about navigating a database you do not need the extra brainpower to return to this line of thought so you want to have them on hand.
Identifying your PICOT terms and phrases doesn’t mean that you are going to use each one every time you search for your topic. Rather, take these terms and try using them in different combinations. If you get too hung up on one particular search term you may be limiting yourself! Flexibility and experimentation with different search terms enables you not only to see more of what information is available on your topic, but it also helps you to think about the whole question.
After putting thought and effort into describing your research question you may feel like your job is done with search term selection. However, as you begin searching, you will find information that may take you down new paths, help you discover new perspectives, and introduce new ways of labeling your topic.
The results that you get from library resources come from a defined medical vocabulary. For example, the topic “birth control pills” might be described as “contraceptives" in some cases, depending on the publication and vocabulary used. It is important to change up your search terms and use the limiting and searching features of the resource you're searching in order to identify as many results as possible that relate to your topic. This can help you through the process of augmenting and refining your PICOT search terms.
Sometimes a PICOT question that seems to provide the right frame of inquiry for your research can be way to big. When this happens, consider narrowing down the focus of your question to a more specific population, timeframe, or geographic location. You can also limit your search to find only a certain type of source (e.g., research articles) or sources that were published more recently (e.g., the last five years).
Sometimes you will find that your topic appears to be too narrow and you are not able to find enough published information on your topic. In this case, you may be inclined to change your topic, but remember that this is a common occurrence and there are many options for retrieving more results. Most importantly, consider broadening your topic by choosing less specific terms for your search (e.g., performance-enhancing drugs instead of anabolic steroids). If you still have questions or concerns, please ask us!