A great research question usually begins with a broad idea that is both interesting to the researcher and important to answer. It may stem from repeated observations about the potential relationship and impacts of two or more factors on a result or outcome. It may result from a root-cause analysis in which previously unrecognized relationships are identified that require further study. Sometimes, asking the right question is the answer. Lipowski suggests three steps in formulating great research questions: (1) ask interesting questions, (2) select the best question for research from among the many possible questions, and (3) turn the research question into a testable hypothesis.1
Let’s take the interesting, but general, research question “Do standard concentrations of medication improve patient safety?” Remember, great research questions contain a series of defined variables that may or may not have an association, correlation, or causation. If definitions do not exist in the literature or cannot be derived ostensibly (i.e., by observation), you need to describe exactly what the variable means in elemental terms. Sometimes, a pilot study is necessary to validate a variable’s definition. Alternatively, you could simply describe how the variable is measured and justify why this measurement is reliable and reproducible. In the previous example question, the two general variables are as follows: (1) standard concentration and (2) patient safety. What is meant by “standard concentration”? Is the research about all different types of medications or a subset, perhaps those that could be hazardous to the patient or costly to the organization? What are the standard concentrations, and where are these standards derived? In what units are the concentrations expressed and measured? What factors make up the derivation of a “standard concentration”? How is patient safety quantified – regarding hazard reduction (a function of the medication itself), error reduction (a function of the operator), or adverse event reduction (a function of the receiver of medication)? What aspect of a patient’s safety would likely be improved? What other factors affect patient safety? Does the question apply to any situation regardless of the patient’s physical location or medical condition? Do different standard concentrations have different effects on patient safety? Each of these questions further refines the research question by creating a context for its study. In addition, these questions identify the important variables necessary to develop research hypotheses.
A hypothesis specifies a relationship between two or more variables. In practice-based research, a hypothesis typically involves a prediction that a program or treatment will cause or be related to a specified outcome. In our example, distilling the general research question “Do standard concentrations of medication improve patient safety?” to a specific research hypothesis might be “There is a significantly positive correlation between the number of heparin concentrations available for intravenous continuous infusion and the number of hemorrhages that require blood transfusion for patients receiving heparin for venous thromboembolism in a pediatric hospital during a 1-year period.” In this hypothesis, a greater specificity about the variables’ definitions, regarding medication type, administration, location, patients, and outcome, will allow you to measure and correlate the variables so that you can infer an answer to the research question.
When developing your next great research question, begin with the broad idea or general problem, and always remember to write it down. Then, narrow your question by a series of iterations that both expand and focus on each variable that might be involved. This process allows you to select measurable variables and ask the research questions that the literature and your own observations tell you are salient for understanding and predicting relationships within the purview of your study.
Richard H. Parrish II, BSPharm, Ph.D., BCPS
Member, ACCP PBRN Community Advisory Panel
1Lipowski EE. Developing great research questions. Am J Health Syst Pharm 2008;65:1667–70.