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Evidence Based Practice (EBP) Research

Introduction to the EBP process including resources and instruction.

EBP Instruction & Resources

This guide is intended to provide instruction and resources to support your EBP research needs. 


Branum, Candise MLS; Schiavenato, Martin PhD, RN. Can ChatGPT Accurately Answer a PICOT Question?: Assessing AI Response to a Clinical Question. Nurse Educator: 10.1097/NNE.NNE.0000000000001436, April 28, 2023. DOI: 10.1097/NNE.0000000000001436.

How do you decide what to write about when confronted with a research paper? You want a focused topic!

Here are some things to consider:

  • Make sure your topic meets the assignment requirements. Ask your professor for feedback if you are unsure.
  • Choose a topic that is interesting to you. It may seem obvious, but this will make the research process more fun and engaging for you.
  • Consider the scope of your topic. If your topic is too broad it may be hard to find information that is focused and relevant; if your topic is too narrow it may be hard to find any information at all.
  • Search MedNar (visual wheel) to spark a spirit of inquiry.

Clinical or Research Questions & Search Strategies

It is helpful to begin by identifying the type of information you seek. For example, EBP questions are typically classified as background or foreground questions.  Ask a Librarian for assistance as you begin your research process. 

Background questions help you identify and understand what is known about an area of interest when it is unfamiliar. These questions address general knowledge of disease processes or clinical contexts and are often broad in scope. Example: How does the drug acetaminophen work to affect fever?

Locating background information on a given topic can be critical for understanding the scope, context and foundation for a research area of interest. Background questions tend to be broader than specific clinical questions, and may include information such as:

  • overviews of a particular disease or condition
  • summaries of the key features of a given patient population
  • explanations of a type of intervention (e.g., drug information)
  • patient-facing educational materials related to a condition or an intervention.
  • summary statistics regarding a given disease or condition

When selecting a background source, consider:

  • currency - how recently was the resource published? Is the topic an emerging technology or within a field of inquiry where information changes rapidly? (If so, consider searching for a very recent review article or evidence summary)
  • authorship - who is the author? (a person? an organization?) What are their qualifications or expertise within the field?

Recommended Background Information Sources:

Review articles (secondary source): Articles that summarizes the research in a particular subject, area, or topic. This type of article provides good background information on what has been previously researched and often includes a summary of a literature review, systematic review, and meta-analyses.

Foreground questions ask for specific knowledge to inform decisions or actions and generally compare one or more options (intervention/comparison to the gold standard of care).

Foreground questions are more granular and refer to a particular feature of the condition in question, such as how best to make the right diagnosis, how to treat it, or what to expect prognostically based on factors the patient possesses. Therefore, foreground questions require primary sources (listed below) that synthesize a wide range of knowledge, requiring a comprehensive literature search. Ask a Librarian for assistance. 

In order to most appropriately choose an information resource and craft a search strategy, it is necessary to consider what kind of question you are asking: a specific, narrow "foreground" question, or a broader background question that will help give context to your research. 

 Across most frameworks, you will often be considering:

  • who (who was studied - a population or sample)
  • what (what was done or examined - an intervention, an exposure, a policy, a program, a phenomenon)
  • how ([how] did the [what] affect the [who] - an outcome, an effect). 

PICO is the most common framework for developing a clinical research question, but multiple question frameworks exist.

Clinical Research (Therapy) Question Example:

In (P) veterans with PTSD does (I) eye movement desensitization and reprocessing versus (C) cognitive-behavioral therapy (O) decrease PTSD symptoms?  

Identify the Type of Question
Prevention, Etiology, Therapy questions = Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) studies or Systematic Reviews.

Step 0: The Spirit of Inquiry

Bell S. G. (2021). Step 0: The Spirit of Inquiry. Neonatal network : NN40(1), 38–39. 

Developing an effective and well-structured EBP question is very important because it directs the strategies you and your team will use to search for evidence. The PICO format is used to create questions that are as specific as possible, making your search more productive and efficient. Ask a Librarian for assistance. 

PICO defines and describes the elements of an answerable EBP question:

P = Patient/Population/Problem: Describes the patient, population, or problem succinctly. Includes the type of patient or population and the setting, considering attributes such as age, gender, symptoms, and diagnosis.

I = Intervention or Issue of Interest: The intervention can be a clinical treatment, an educational or administrative intervention, or a structure or process.

C = Comparison:  Foreground questions compare one intervention to another. Background questions do not include a comparison.

O = Outcome: This component describes the desired change or improvement.

Source: Dang, Deborah, et al. Johns Hopkins Evidence-Based Practice for Nurses and Healthcare Professionals, Fourth Edition, Sigma Theta Tau International, 2021. 

PICO is a widely-used acronym to assist in remembering the key components of a clinical question. There are additional letters and frameworks to help you formulate a question fitting your research. Not all parts of PICO are required! PICO is a framework to help you narrow your topic, not a rule.

When should you use PICO?

  • In academia when you are looking for evidence to support best practice
  • In practice when you have a question about patient care

Why should you use PICO?

  • Helps you form a focused question that will return relevant results
  • Helps you retrieve a manageable amount of results
  • Assists you in brainstorming keywords for your research
  • Saves time!

Capili, Bernadette PhD, NP-C. How Does Research Start?. AJN, American Journal of Nursing: October 2020 - Volume 120 - Issue 10 - p 41-44.

Searching databases in a consistent, structured manner will save you time. As your searching progresses and your searches are refined, your search history can be extremely useful. It can also improve the relevancy of results obtained, as you reflect on your keywords and synonyms and how these influence your search results.

To develop a search strategy you will need to:

  • define and write down your research question - what is it that you are going to research?
  • identify, and keep a record of key words, terms and phrases
    • brainstorming your main discussion points to create concept/mind maps can help tease out themes and keywords
    • identify keyword synonyms, use a database Thesauri or Subject Headings;
  • determine a time frame for your research, if needed
  • consider what type of material you will include and why
  • identify where you will search for the information
  • Ask a Librarian for assistance!

Searching is an iterative process and often requires re-evaluation and testing by adding or changing keywords and the ways they relate to each other. To guide your search development, you can follow the search steps below.

1. Formulate a clear, well-defined, answerable search question

Generally, the basic literature search process begins with formulating a clear, well-defined research question. Asking the right research question is essential to creating an effective search.  

2. Identify primary concepts and gather synonyms

Your research question will also help identify the primary search concepts. This will allow you to think about how the concepts to relate to each other. 

3. Locate subject headings (MeSH)

Subject databases use 'controlled vocabularies' made up of subject headings that are preassigned to indexed articles that share a similar topic. These subject headings are organized hierarchically within a family tree of broader and narrower concepts. Search the Medical Subject Heading [MeSH] database.

4. Combine concepts using Boolean operators AND/OR

Once you have identified your search concepts, synonyms, and MeSH terms, you will need to put them together using nesting and Boolean operators (e.g. AND, OR, NOT).  

5. Refine search terms and search One Search, PubMed @ SMU or other databases.

There are various database search tactics you can use, such as field tags to limit the search to certain fields, quotation marks for phrase searching, and proximity operators to search a number of spaces between terms to refine your search terms. 

6. Apply limits (optional)

If you're getting too many results, you can further refine your search results by using limits on the left box of the results page. Limits allow you to narrow your search by a number of facets such as year, journal name, article type, language, age, etc.

7. Avoid wasting time on conducting exhaustive searches.

If it is taking you longer than 30 minutes to conduct a well-built search, Ask a Librarian for assistance. Librarians are expert searchers that can help you find what you need.

Good search practice could involve keeping a search "research" log or document detailing your search activities so that you can keep track of effective search terms, or to help others to reproduce your steps and get the same results. 

This record could be a document, table, or spreadsheet with:

  • The names of the sources you search and which provider you accessed them through - eg Medline (Ovid). You should also include any other literature sources you used.
  • The search strategies that you applied when searching different sources (eg Medline) can be added as an appendix to your document. This provides additional detail on:
    • how you searched (keyword and/or subject headings)
    • which search terms you used (which words and phrases)
    • any search techniques you employed (truncation, adjacency, etc)
    • how you combined your search terms (AND/OR). 
  • The number of search results from each source and each strategy used. This can be the evidence you need to prove a gap in the literature and confirms the importance of your research question.
  • Gather your sources and organize with our writing and citing resource guides

A search planner may help you to organize your thoughts prior to conducting your search. If you have any problems with organizing your thoughts prior, during, and after searching please Ask a Librarian for individual help.