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Searching the Literature: Planning your search

How to do a literature review

Tips and Tricks


  • Take time to construct your clinical question.
  • Construct your PICO question, with as much detail as possible.
  • Think about potential synonyms e.g. Jetlag/circadian rhythms or cancer/neoplasms.
  • Are you search terms correctly spelt or have you missed a key term?
  • Start with an EBP resource such as Up to Date to provide you with background information and keywords on the topic.
  • Or alternatively an eBook/textbook which has been written by an authoritative expert in their field.
  • Depending on your topic it may be necessary to search a variety of databases to conduct your search; don’t just limit yourself to CINAHL or Medline only.
  • Don’t limit to “fulltext” immediately, you may miss out on high quality articles.
  • Reflect on your search results...have your search results revealed to little or too much information.

Planning Templates

A planning template is a great tool to document your keywords, questions and what resources you are going to search.

This keeps everything in one document, to refer too.

There are many types of templates freely available

An excel spreasheet is recommended as you can add or change information according to your search requirements.

The Literature Search process : guidance for NSH Researchers - a more detailed template freely available for use.

PICO - Turning a clinical situation into an answerable question?


PICO (Patient/ Population, Intervention/ Indicator, Comparison/ Control, Outcome) helps provide a structure for searching and guide you in developing search terms. 

  • Watch this short video takes an information question and then breaks it down into the PICO components.

Finding the Evidence 1 - Using PICO to formulate a search question [3 Min.] Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, Oxford

  • Now look at these examples below to consolidate your understanding of how a PICO is formed.
Example Question  1-  Turning a clinical question into a PICO format

Q. Does hand washing among healthcare workers reduce hospital acquired infections?

When you search a database combine the most relevant components ; it is not always necessary to use all 4 elements of a PICO strategy into a single search.

PICO Strategy Example
P (Patient or Population) Health care workers or Hospital Staff
I (Intervention / Indicator) Hand washing
C (Comparison)

no hand washing ; other interventions eg face mask

  • You could leave empty if only you wish to find studies on hand washing as the intervention only.
O (Outcome) reduced infection
Example Question  2-  Turning a clinical question into a PICO form and answerable question

Q. A 58 year old male presents with right shoulder pain developing over the past two weeks, with no history of trauma.  Movements are generally painful and restricted, in particular abduction.  X-ray has come back as normal.  A diagnosis of rotator cuff tendinitis was made.  You wonder whether it is best to treat with a corticosteroid injection or physiotherapy. 


PICO Strategy Example
P (Patient Population)

Adult with rotator cuff tendinitis


Adult (Middle aged) with rotator cuff tendinitis

  • Don't distinguish between male or female unless the condition is attributed to a specific sex only.
  • Limit the search by the age group of the patient population, in this case Middle Aged (58 year old) ONLY  If many studies are retrieved.
I (Intervention / Indicator) Corticosteroid injection
C (Comparison) Physiotherapy
O (Outcome) Reduce pain relief
Answerable Question In middle aged adults with rotator cuff tendinitis is a corticosteroid injection more effective than physiotherapy to treat and provide pain relief.