The clinical case report: a review of its merits and limitations

BMC Res Notes. 2014 Apr 23;7:264. doi: 10.1186/1756-0500-7-264.

Abstract

Background: The clinical case report has a long-standing tradition in the medical literature. While its scientific significance has become smaller as more advanced research methods have gained ground, case reports are still presented in many medical journals. Some scholars point to its limited value for medical progress, while others assert that the genre is undervalued. We aimed to present the various points of view regarding the merits and limitations of the case report genre. We searched Google Scholar, PubMed and select textbooks on epidemiology and medical research for articles and book-chapters discussing the merits and limitations of clinical case reports and case series.

Results: The major merits of case reporting were these: Detecting novelties, generating hypotheses, pharmacovigilance, high applicability when other research designs are not possible to carry out, allowing emphasis on the narrative aspect (in-depth understanding), and educational value. The major limitations were: Lack of ability to generalize, no possibility to establish cause-effect relationship, danger of over-interpretation, publication bias, retrospective design, and distraction of reader when focusing on the unusual.

Conclusions: Despite having lost its central role in medical literature in the 20th century, the genre still appears popular. It is a valuable part of the various research methods, especially since it complements other approaches. Furthermore, it also contributes in areas of medicine that are not specifically research-related, e.g. as an educational tool. Revision of the case report genre has been attempted in order to integrate the biomedical model with the narrative approach, but without significant success. The future prospects of the case report could possibly be in new applications of the genre, i.e. exclusive case report databases available online, and open access for clinicians and researchers.

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research / methods*
  • Humans
  • Periodicals as Topic
  • Research Design