Writing a Case Report

This page is intended for medical students, residents or others who do not have much experience with case reports, but are planning on writing one.  

What is a case report? A medical case report, also known as a case study, is a detailed description of a clinical encounter with a patient.  The most important aspect of a case report, i.e. the reason you would go to the trouble of writing one, is that the case is sufficiently unique, rare or interesting such that other medical professionals will learn something from it.   

Case reports are commonly of the following categories:

- Rare diseases

- Unusual presentation of disease

- Unexpected events

- Unusual combination of diseases or conditions

- Difficult or inconclusive diagnosis

- Treatment or management challenges

- Personal impact

- Observations that shed new light on a disease or condition

- Anatomical variations

It is important that you recognize what is unique or interesting about your case, and this must be described clearly in the case report.

Case reports generally take the format of:

1. Background

2. Case presentation

3. Observations and investigation

4. Diagnosis

5. Treatment

6. Outcome

7. Discussion


Does a case report require IRB approval?

Case reports typically discuss a single patient. If this is true for your case report, then it most likely does not require IRB approval because it not considered research.    If you have more than one patient, your study could qualify as a Case Series, which would require IRB review.  If you have questions, you chould check your local IRB's guidelines on reviewing case reports.

Are there other rules for writing a case report?

First, you will be collecting protected health information, thus HIPAA applies to case reports.   Spectrum Health has created a very helpful guidance document for case reports, which you can see here:  Case Report Guidance - Spectrum Health

While this guidance document was created by Spectrum Health, the rules and regulations outlined could apply to any case report.  This includes answering questions like: Do I need written HIPAA authorization to publish a case report?  When do I need IRB review of a case report?  What qualifies as a patient identifier?

How do I get started?

1. We STRONGLY encourage you to consult the CARE Guidelines, which provide guidance on writing case reports - https://www.care-statement.org/

Specifically, the checklist - https://www.care-statement.org/checklist - which explains exactly the information you should collect and include in your case report.  

2. Identify a case.  If you are a medical student, you may not yet have the clinical expertise to determine if a specific case is worth writing up.  If so, you must seek the help of a clinician.  It is common for students to ask attendings or residents if they have any interesting cases that can be used for a case report. 

3. Select a journal or two to which you think you will submit the case report.   Journals often have specific requirements for publishing case reports, which could include a requirement for informed consent, a letter or statement from the IRB and other things.  Journals may also charge publication fees (see Is it free to publish? below)   

4. Obtain informed consent from the patient (see "Do I have to obtain informed consent from the patient?" below).  Journals may have their own informed consent form that they would like you to use, so please look for this when selecting a journal.

Once you've identified the case, selected an appropriate journal(s), and considered informed consent, you can collect the required information to write the case report.


How do I write a case report?

Once you identify a case and have learned what information to include in the case report, try to find a previously published case report.  Finding published case reports in a similar field will provide examples to guide you through the process of writing a case report.    

One journal you can consult is BMJ Case Reports.  As of 2020-2021, MSU has an institutional fellowship with BMJ Case Reports which allows MSU faculty, staff and students to publish in this journal for free.  See this page for a link to the journal and more information on publishing-   https://lib.msu.edu/medicalwriting_publishing/

There are numerous other journals where you can find published case reports to help guide you in your writing. 


Do I have to obtain informed consent from the patient?

The CARE guidelines recommend obtaining informed consent from patients for all case reports.  Our recommendation is to obtain informed consent from the patient.  Although not technically required, especially if the case report does not include any identifying information, some journals require informed consent for all case reports before publishing.  The CARE guidelines recommend obtaining informed consent AND the patient's perspective on the treatment/outcome (if possible).  Please consider this as well.  

If required, it is recommended you obtain informed consent before the case report is written.

An example of a case report consent form can be found on the BMJ Case Reports website, which you can access via the MSU library page - https://lib.msu.edu/medicalwriting_publishing/.  Go to "Instructions for Authors" and then "Patient Consent" to find the consent form they use.  You can create a similar form to obtain consent from your patient.  If you have identified a journal already, please consult their requirements and determine if they have a specific consent form they would like you to use.


Seek feedback

Once you have written a draft of the case report, you should seek feedback on your writing, from experts in the field if possible, or from those who have written case reports before.   

Selecting a journal

Aside from BMJ Case Reports mentioned above, there are many, many journals out there who publish medical case reports.   Ask your mentor if they have a journal they would like to use.  If you need to select on your own, here are some strategies:

1. Do a PubMed search.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

   a. Do a search for a topic, disease or other feature of your case report 

   b. When the results appear, on the left side of the page is a limiter for "article type".  Case reports are an       article type you can limit your search results to.  If you don't see that option on the left, click "additional         filters". 

   c. Review the case reports that come up, and see what journals they are published in.

2. Use JANE - https://jane.biosemantics.org/

3. Check with specialty societies.  Many specialty societies are affiliated with one or more journal, which can be reviewed for ones that match your needs

4. Search through individual publisher journal lists.  Elsevier publishes many different medical research journals, and they have a journal finder, much like JANE  (https://journalfinder.elsevier.com/).  This is exclusive to Elsevier journals.  There are many other publishers of medical journals for review, including Springer, Dove Press, BMJ, BMC, Wiley, Sage, Nature and many others.

Is it free to publish?

Be aware that it may not be free to publish your case report.  Many journals charge publication fees. Of note, many open access journals charge author fees of thousands of dollars.   Other journals have smaller page charges (i.e. $60 per page), and still others will publish for free, with an "open access option".  It is best practice to check the journal's Info for Authors section or Author Center to determine what the cost is to publish.  CHM does NOT have funds to support publication costs, so this is an important step if you do not want to pay out of pocket for publishing



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*content developed by Mark Trottier, PhD