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Comprehensive Searching for Health Sciences: Clinical Questions - The Basics

Types of Clinical Questions

Clinical questions can be divided into two basic categories:

Background Questions

Foreground Questions

General information

Specific and sometimes complex information

Can often be answered using textbooks, narrative review articles, or other secondary sources

Can be answered by summarizing peer-reviewed literature, which is found through comprehensive searches

Usually begins with What, Where, Why, When, Who, or How

Used in health science research and clinical decision making

Example: “What are the symptoms of gestational diabetes?”

Example: “In pregnant women with gestational diabetes, does metformin therapy help regulate blood glucose levels?”

The type of question you are asking depends on your information need at the time. Both serve an important purpose in discovering health science information. The rest of this subject guide is dedicated to foreground questions.

Types of Foreground Questions

Foreground questions can be further divided into several different types, depending on what is being examined by the question:

Intervention/Therapy: a treatment used to achieve a specific outcome – drugs, surgery, dietary changes, targeted exercises, social programs, etc.

Diagnostic: a diagnostic test – sensitivity, specificity, comparison to other tests, interpretability, etc.

Etiology: a cause of a disease – environmental exposure, lifestyle, iatrogenic causes, preexisting conditions, genetic causes, etc.

Prevention: a way to prevent or reduce the risk of disease – lifestyle changes, drugs, social programs, etc.

Prognosis: a prediction for how disease will naturally progress – as time passes, comparing different prognostic factors, likely complications, etc.

Qualitative: often patient views, experiences, and perspectives.

All types listed here (with the exception of Qualitative) are quantitative questions. There are many more possible types of foreground questions!

Developing a Question Topic - First Steps

When you first start developing your health science research question, there are a few factors that may be helpful to consider:

Is it specific enough? You may be inundated with information if your topic is not specific enough.  You may also find it difficult to draw conclusions from your findings if the topic is too broad.

Is it too specific? You may not find enough information in this case.

Is the topic able to be researched ethically? Certain topics can only be studied observationally, due to ethical reasons.

Is this field of research brand new? New topics may not may not have much literature published about them yet.

Will you be answering a useful question? Ideally, a research topic will contribute useful information to the greater body of knowledge.

Is the topic meaningful and interesting to you? This will make it more enjoyable and relevant.

Before moving onto the next section, consider what your research topic is – remember that it does not have to be perfect yet at this stage!