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Psychiatry: Background and Foreground Questions

Background Questions

Background questions usually concern conditions, and consist of two parts:

  1. The root question (W5H) + verb, eg. what causes ...? [W5H = who, what, when, where, why, how]
  2. Problem, eg. influenza

Early in training, a medical student on seeing a patient with newly diagnosed diabetes mellitus, may ask questions such as:

  • What is type 2 diabetes mellitus?
  • Why does this patient have polyuria?
  • Why does this patient have numbness and pain in his/her legs?
  • What treatment options are available?

These background questions address normal human physiology and the pathophysiology associated with a medical condition.

Most background questions can be answered by standard textbooks, such as Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine (Harrison's Online), Rudolph's Pediatrics, Williams Gynecology, Williams Obstetrics, and Current Diagnosis & Treatment: Surgery or Pathophysiology of Disease: an Introduction to Clinical Medicine

Innovative evidence-based resources, such as UptoDate  (log on to ClinicalKey, search for a term or diabetes, then select First Consult [FC] articles) also provide answers to some background questions. To provide faster searching, various publishers may group collections of textbooks together to be searched at the same time. Major collections of such textbooks at  are found at ClinicalKey,  and AccessMedicine. These collections can also include various other resources besides textbooks.

Such e-textbooks are usually easy to search. A single term (such as a disease) can be searched and will lead to further categories or chapters.

The Internet can also be used to find background question information. However, caution should be exercised in using unreliable sources for clinical information.

Subject Guide

Nonkuthalo Ngcakaza's picture
Nonkuthalo Ngcakaza
Mrs Nonkuthalo Ngcakaza-Mchunu
Senior Librarian
College of Health Sciences
University of KwaZulu-Natal
Medical School Campus
Tel: 031-260 4766
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