Case reports represent the oldest and most familiar form of medical communication. Far from a "second-class" publication, many original observations are first presented as case reports. Like scientific abstracts, the case report abstract is governed by rules that dictate its format and length. This article will outline the features of a well-written case report abstract and provide an example to emphasize the main features.
Scientific forums have specific rules regarding how the abstract should appear. For ACP, the rules are available on the electronic abstracts portal. Organizers of scientific meetings set explicit limits on the length of abstracts.
The most difficult decision to make is whether your case report is worth submitting as an abstract. Of course, rarity of a condition almost always meets the criterion of worthiness, but few of us have the opportunity to describe something that is completely new. Another reason to report a case is the lesson that it teaches. With this in mind, consider presenting a case if it increases awareness of a condition, suggests the proper diagnostic strategy, or demonstrates a more cost-effective approach to management. Alternatively, a case can be presented because it represents an unusual presentation of a relatively common condition. Other twists include an unusual complication of a disease and its management. Again, it's important to think about the message or lesson that the case can deliver.
Before you begin writing the abstract, present a quick summary of your case to colleagues or mentors to determine if they agree that the case is worthy of presentation. It is important to contribute something unique, but not if it depends on some trivial variation from previously presented cases. For example, if it is known that a certain cancer widely metastasizes, it is not worthwhile to report each new site. Similarly, drug reactions often merit a case report, but not if it is simply a report of a drug in a class whose other members are known to cause the same reaction.
Once you have decided to submit a case report abstract, describe it in such a way as to make it interesting, yet conform to the accepted format. The following paragraphs provide suggestions on both style and format.
Title and Author Information: The title is a summary of the abstract itself and should convince the reader that the topic is important, relevant, and innovative. However, don't tell everything about the case in the title, otherwise the reader's interest might lag. Make the title short, descriptive, and interesting. Some organizations require a special format for the title, such as all uppercase letters. Be sure to check the instructions. Following the title, include the names of authors followed by their institutional affiliations. Deciding upon the authorship of a case report can be tricky. In the past, it was acceptable to include as authors those contributing to the management of the patient, but this is no longer true. Currently, it is expected that the authors contribute significantly to the intellectual content of the case report. It is assumed that the first author will present the work if the abstract is accepted. The first author may need to meet certain eligibility requirements in order to present the abstract, for example, be a member of the professional society sponsoring the research meeting. This information is always included with the abstract instructions.
Introduction: Most case report abstracts begin with a short introduction. This typically describes the context of the case and explains its relevance and importance. However, it is perfectly acceptable to begin directly with the description of the case.
Case Description: When reporting the case, follow the basic rules of medical communication; describe in sequence the history, physical examination, investigative studies, and the patient's progress and outcome. The trick is to be complete without obscuring the essence of the case with irrelevant details.
Discussion: The main purpose of the discussion is to review why decisions were made and extract the lesson from the case. Not uncommonly, reports from the literature, or their absence, are cited that either directly support or contradict the findings of the case. Be wary of boasting that your case is the "first" to describe a particular phenomenon, since even the most thorough searches often fail to reveal all instances of similar cases. Keep in mind that the best case report abstracts are those that make a small number of teaching points (even just one) in clear and succinct language.
When writing the abstract, avoid the use of medical jargon and excessive reliance on abbreviations. Limit abbreviations to no more than three, and favor commonly used abbreviations. Always spell out the abbreviations the first time they are mentioned unless they are commonly recognized (e.g., CBC).
It typically takes several days to write a good abstract, and the process should not be undertaken alone. Get help from a mentor who is not familiar with the case; such mentors can quickly point out areas that are unclear or demand more detail. Make revisions based upon the feedback. Finally, have others read your draft in order to check for technical errors, such as spelling and grammar mistakes. Reading the abstract out loud is another good way to catch awkward phrasing and word omissions. Finally, a Clinical Vignette Abstract Checklist and an example of a clinical vignette abstract are available to help you with the process of writing a successful abstract.
The following abstracts are compiled from Check Sample exercises published in 2008. These peer-reviewed case studies assist laboratory professionals with continuing medical education and are developed in the areas of clinical chemistry, cytopathology, forensic pathology, hematology, microbiology, surgical pathology, and transfusion medicine. Abstracts for all exercises published in the program will appear annually in AJCP.
1 Fetal Lung Maturity Testing Clinical Chemistry No. CC 08-1 (CC-367)
Neonatal respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is a disorder of pulmonary immaturity with a high mortality characterized by low levels of pulmonary surfactant. Gestational age determines risk based on concentration of pulmonary surfactant, ie, as gestation progresses the concentration of pulmonary surfactant increases. As a result, newborns delivered at fewer than 28 weeks have a more than 60% risk of RDS, whereas those delivered at more than 34 weeks have a less than 5% risk of RDS. In situations where gestational age alone is not sufficient to determine RDS risk and preterm delivery is medically needed, amniotic fluid analysis can be performed to determine pulmonary surfactant concentration. Four common methods are the lecithin-sphingomyelin ratio, phosphatidylglycerol measurement, surfactant-albumin ratio, and lamellar body count. All of these tests have excellent negative predictive values but poor positive predictive values, ie, they are great at confirming maturity but poor at confirming immaturity.
2 Alkaline Phosphatase Isoenzyme Analysis: Guiding the Differential Diagnosis of Elevated Serum Total Alkaline Phosphatase Clinical Chemistry No. CC 08-2 (CC-368)
David S. Bosler, MD
1Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN
Raymond E. Karcher, PhD
2Department of Clinical Pathology, William Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, MI
The measurement of alkaline phosphatase (ALP) has long been used in clinical medicine, primarily to aid the diagnosis and monitoring of liver and bone diseases. Its diagnostic utility is limited by the enzyme’s wide tissue distribution and by a variety of potential nonpathologic causes. Isoenzyme analysis is one of several tools available to the clinician hoping to further characterize an elevated total ALP. It provides differentiation among liver, bone, intestinal, placental, and tumor-related forms as the cause of an elevation. The case presents a patient with persistent elevated ALP and atypical bands in the isoenzyme electrophoresis gel. An atypical ALP may be the result of a macroenzyme, which, if present, complicates interpretation of the test result and may cause additional, unnecessary testing or procedures. Recognizing and reporting a macroenzyme is an important service the clinical laboratorian can provide a clinician.
3 Indirect Phlebotomy: Is It Good Practice? Clinical Chemistry No. CC 08-3 (CC-369)
Indirect phlebotomy, the collection of blood samples through vascular infusion devices, is a common practice adopted to minimize needle-stick pain and discomfort in hospitalized patients. However, this practice can lead to alteration of the specimen and medical errors associated with misrepresentation of the blood test values. Among the possible problems, dilution or concentration of a particular analyte may occur, depending on the contents of the line’s infusate. Although some studies may indicate that blood collection from lines can be acceptable for isolated laboratory tests, there are insufficient data to demonstrate the reliability of line draws as routine practice. Use of lines for specimen collection should be reserved only for those patients with truly poor vascular access or those patients who require multiple phlebotomies in a short time period. Samples should be collected from lines only under a direct physician order, with careful attention to technique and established protocols that take many variables into account, including the analytes, contents of the line, type of line, discard blood volume, time interval between interruption of infusion and sampling, and catheter size. Even with careful attention to these details, clinicians must remain wary of the potential for medical errors related to misinterpretation of laboratory test results based on such samples.
© American Society for Clinical Pathology
Carol Rauch, MD, PhD, FACP
Department of Pathology, Baystate Health, Springfield, MA