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PA/MPH program (IN PROGRESS): Search the Literature

Selected library and online resources for students, faculty, and staff in the joint PA/MPH program.

Step 3: Search the Literature 

With your research question defined and your scope outlined, you can begin to search. 

Use keywords and subject terms to locate literature on your topic of interest. As you read the titles and abstracts of articles, you may refine your search strategy. 

As you search, be sure to record the databases you search (you can find a list of recommended databases below), as well as the terms you used to search, and the date(s) you conducted your search. 

Foreground and Background Questions

Clinical questions are categorized as background or foreground. Once you determine your question type, look at the box to the right to see what type(s) of studies and appropriate resources you should consult to answer your question. 

Background Questions

  • Ask to obtain general knowledge about an illness, condition, or disease. 
  • Ask who, what, when, where, how, or why

Foreground Questions

  • Ask for specific knowledge to inform clinical decisions. 
  • Deal with specific patient or population; more complex than background questions. 

Examples of background and foreground questions (NYU Libraries)



Key Indexing/Citation Databases

Begin your research with a "seed article" - an article that strongly supports your research topic.  Then use a citation database to follow the studies published by finding articles which have cited that article, either because they support it or because they disagree with it.

Snowballing is the process where researchers will begin with a select number of articles they have identified relevant/strongly supports their topic and then search each articles' references reviewing the studies cited to determine if they are relevant to your research.

BONUS POINTS: This process also helps identify key highly cited authors within a topic to help establish the "experts" in the field.

What is PICO?

According to the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine (CEBM), well-formed clinical questions are essential in practicing EBM. "To benefit patients and clinicians, such questions need to be both directly relevant to patients' problems and phrased in ways that direct your search to relevant and precise answers." - CEBM, University of Toronto, Asking Focused Questions

The PICO model is a tool that can help you formulate a good clinical question. Sometimes it's referred to as PICO-T, containing an optional 5th factor. 

 P - Patient,  Population, or  Problem  What are the most important characteristics of the patient? How  would you describe a group of patients similar to yours?
 I - Intervention,  Exposure,  Prognostic Factor  What main intervention, prognostic factor, or exposure are you  considering? What do you want to do for the patient (prescribe a  drug,  order a test, etc.)?
 C - Comparison  What is the main alternative to compare with the intervention? 
 O - Outcome  What do you hope to accomplish, measure, improve, or affect?
 T - Time Factor,  Type of Study  (optional)  How would you categorize this question? What would be the best study design to answer this question? 

Finding the Evidence - A PICO Tutorial

This video from the CEBM demonstrates how to use PICO to formulate a clinical question.

Where to Search

To learn more about accessing specific databases and maximizing your search, view our database-specific guides and tutorials: