At an early stage, it can often be difficult to identify a clear question. Many of us come across “interesting ideas” in clinical practice but we don’t know how to turn these ideas into research questions.
Even if we do have a “light bulb moment”, it can still be difficult to formulate a question that is answerable within the constraints of time, money and other factors. Here are some ideas about how to address that.
- Realise that patients (and their families) have probably been thinking about their problems longer than you have – ask them what they want to see done! You might find it easier to do this by working with a patient organization (particularly if your patient has a rare disease), or you can get a patient group together at a local level and listen carefully to what they say. (See PPI section.)
- Check out existing research prioritisation exercises such as those led by the James Lind Alliance.
- Have a question structure to work within – e.g. PICO
- Check if there are any systematic reviews or meta-analyses relevant to your area of interest - read them and see what has been identified as gaps or future research needs.
- Look at other sources to see what is already written about the subject and see if your idea is really novel, or whether it has already been done – check resources like clinicaltrials.gov to see if a relevant trial is registered
- Talk to your own network – do your peers like your idea?
- Talk to your educational supervisor – they may know about the subject, or know someone else who could give a more informed view.
- Consider whether it has support of relevant clinical groups (such as NIHR CRN Clinical Studies Groups (CSGs), local CSGs, parent groups) and relevant charities.
- Common pitfalls:
- Question that is too broad
- Question that will require too much time/funding to answer
- Question that does not have sufficient impact to impress funders