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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Evidence-Based Medicine: Asking Questions

A guide to tools and resources on the topic of Evidence-Based Medicine

Why Questions?

Most clinical encounters lead to a need for information. The first step in EBM is to translate the need for information into a question that can be answered by clinical research. 

There are "foreground" questions and "background" questions.

Background questions:

  • look for general knowledge  
  • contain a who, what, where, when, or why 
  • contain a verb
  • look at an aspect of health care, such as treatment, disorder, or test

Foreground questions:

  • look for specific information to make treatment decisions
  • sometimes called "PICO" questions

The four parts of an answerable foreground question are PICO:

  • Problem (Patient)
  • Intervention
  • Comparison
  • Outcome

Questions might investigate: prevention, cost-effectiveness, quality of life, clinical findings, prognosis, aetiology, or therapy, among others. The question asked determines the types of evidence searched.


  • Who is the patient?
  • What clinical terms describe the patient?
  • What clinical terms describe the problem the patient is experiencing?


  • What steps are you considering?
  • What options do you have?
  • How specific can you be about your plan?


  • Are there alternatives to what you are considering?
  • Is there comparative research on treatment options?
  • What would you do if you did not take the steps you plan to?


  • What result or outcome is most important to your patient?
  • What result or outcome do you think is realistic?
  • What outcomes are reported in the literature for different treatment options?