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Embase: PICO search

What is PICO?

PICO is a model that helps medical practitioners to define a research question.  In Embase, PICO stands for:

  • Population: the problem, disease or condition to be researched
  • Intervention: the proposed solution, e.g. a medicine
  • Comparison: is this intervention to be compared against an alternative intervention, for example a placebo?
  • Outcome: what would you like to measure, for example (absence of) pain?  

PICO search example

To find out whether amoxycillin is an effective treatment for ear infection (acute otitis media), by measuring the outcome of whether the patient still has earache (otalgia):

Screenshot showing PICO search example

You can choose whether to add synonyms for your terms. This can be particularly useful for drug terms.  For the example above, amoxycillin, if you include synonyms you will also search for its full chemical name 6-[[amino(4-hydroxyphenyl)acetyl]amino]-3,3-dimethyl-7-oxo-4-thia-1-azabicyclo[3.2.0]heptane-2-carboxylic acid and trade names such as trimox and moxitab. It's best to read the list of synonyms and decide which to include or exclude: some of them may be unhelpful!

PICO search options

At the top of the screen you can choose from 4 different search strategy options.  The options can also be selected from the drop-down arrow next to each search term:

Screenshot showing PICO search options

  • To find the maximum number of results, use the /br option. This searches for the term in the Emtree index and its subheadings plus it does a free text search of all fields of the database.
  • /exp means it will search for the term in the Emtree index and its subheadings
  • /de means for the term in the Emtree index without subheadings 
  • Use /mj for one or more of your terms if you are finding too many results and don't need a comprehensive search of the literature.  /mj limits your search to articles where the indexers have decided that the topic is the major focus of the journal article.

But a disadvantage of the PICO search is that you cannot select more than one of these 4 options. If you use the Emtree search you can apply both /exp and /mj to your term.

More benefits of PICO search

You don't have to use the PICO search form for a traditional PICO-type search, it can be used for any search. 

  • Terms you enter on a single line will be combined using OR 
  • Terms you enter on different lines will be combined with AND

The main benefit of this over an Emtree search is that you can enter all of the synonyms for your search term.  For example, the term Pharmacy (Shop) was introduced into Emtree in 2019.  Searching for this in Emtree will give you about 87,000 results.  But it has 13 synonyms which won't be searched in Emtree: apothecary; chemist (shop); chemist shop; chemist's shop; community pharmacy; community pharmacy services; pharmaceutical service; pharmaceutical services; pharmaceutical services, online; pharmacies; pharmacy; retail pharmacy.  This PICO search will give about 782,000 results:

Screenshot showing PICO search with synonyms


Elsevier provides a 2 minute video on how to use the PICO search form.