Clinicians Case Study Definitions
What is a case study?
A case study is a research approach that is used to generate an in-depth, multi-faceted understanding of a complex issue in its real-life context. It is an established research design that is used extensively in a wide variety of disciplines, particularly in the social sciences. A case study can be defined in a variety of ways (Table 5), the central tenet being the need to explore an event or phenomenon in depth and in its natural context. It is for this reason sometimes referred to as a "naturalistic" design; this is in contrast to an "experimental" design (such as a randomised controlled trial) in which the investigator seeks to exert control over and manipulate the variable(s) of interest.
Stake's work has been particularly influential in defining the case study approach to scientific enquiry. He has helpfully characterised three main types of case study: intrinsic, instrumental and collective. An intrinsic case study is typically undertaken to learn about a unique phenomenon. The researcher should define the uniqueness of the phenomenon, which distinguishes it from all others. In contrast, the instrumental case study uses a particular case (some of which may be better than others) to gain a broader appreciation of an issue or phenomenon. The collective case study involves studying multiple cases simultaneously or sequentially in an attempt to generate a still broader appreciation of a particular issue.
These are however not necessarily mutually exclusive categories. In the first of our examples (Table 1), we undertook an intrinsic case study to investigate the issue of recruitment of minority ethnic people into the specific context of asthma research studies, but it developed into a instrumental case study through seeking to understand the issue of recruitment of these marginalised populations more generally, generating a number of the findings that are potentially transferable to other disease contexts. In contrast, the other three examples (see Tables 2, 3 and 4) employed collective case study designs to study the introduction of workforce reconfiguration in primary care, the implementation of electronic health records into hospitals, and to understand the ways in which healthcare students learn about patient safety considerations[4-6]. Although our study focusing on the introduction of General Practitioners with Specialist Interests (Table 2) was explicitly collective in design (four contrasting primary care organisations were studied), is was also instrumental in that this particular professional group was studied as an exemplar of the more general phenomenon of workforce redesign.
What are case studies used for?
According to Yin, case studies can be used to explain, describe or explore events or phenomena in the everyday contexts in which they occur. These can, for example, help to understand and explain causal links and pathways resulting from a new policy initiative or service development (see Tables 2 and 3, for example). In contrast to experimental designs, which seek to test a specific hypothesis through deliberately manipulating the environment (like, for example, in a randomised controlled trial giving a new drug to randomly selected individuals and then comparing outcomes with controls), the case study approach lends itself well to capturing information on more explanatory 'how', 'what' and 'why' questions, such as 'how is the intervention being implemented and received on the ground?'. The case study approach can offer additional insights into what gaps exist in its delivery or why one implementation strategy might be chosen over another. This in turn can help develop or refine theory, as shown in our study of the teaching of patient safety in undergraduate curricula (Table 4)[6,10]. Key questions to consider when selecting the most appropriate study design are whether it is desirable or indeed possible to undertake a formal experimental investigation in which individuals and/or organisations are allocated to an intervention or control arm? Or whether the wish is to obtain a more naturalistic understanding of an issue? The former is ideally studied using a controlled experimental design, whereas the latter is more appropriately studied using a case study design.
Case studies may be approached in different ways depending on the epistemological standpoint of the researcher, that is, whether they take a critical (questioning one's own and others' assumptions), interpretivist (trying to understand individual and shared social meanings) or positivist approach (orientating towards the criteria of natural sciences, such as focusing on generalisability considerations) (Table 6). Whilst such a schema can be conceptually helpful, it may be appropriate to draw on more than one approach in any case study, particularly in the context of conducting health services research. Doolin has, for example, noted that in the context of undertaking interpretative case studies, researchers can usefully draw on a critical, reflective perspective which seeks to take into account the wider social and political environment that has shaped the case.
Example of epistemological approaches that may be used in case study research
How are case studies conducted?
Here, we focus on the main stages of research activity when planning and undertaking a case study; the crucial stages are: defining the case; selecting the case(s); collecting and analysing the data; interpreting data; and reporting the findings.
Defining the case
Carefully formulated research question(s), informed by the existing literature and a prior appreciation of the theoretical issues and setting(s), are all important in appropriately and succinctly defining the case[8,12]. Crucially, each case should have a pre-defined boundary which clarifies the nature and time period covered by the case study (i.e. its scope, beginning and end), the relevant social group, organisation or geographical area of interest to the investigator, the types of evidence to be collected, and the priorities for data collection and analysis (see Table 7). A theory driven approach to defining the case may help generate knowledge that is potentially transferable to a range of clinical contexts and behaviours; using theory is also likely to result in a more informed appreciation of, for example, how and why interventions have succeeded or failed.
Example of a checklist for rating a case study proposal
For example, in our evaluation of the introduction of electronic health records in English hospitals (Table 3), we defined our cases as the NHS Trusts that were receiving the new technology. Our focus was on how the technology was being implemented. However, if the primary research interest had been on the social and organisational dimensions of implementation, we might have defined our case differently as a grouping of healthcare professionals (e.g. doctors and/or nurses). The precise beginning and end of the case may however prove difficult to define. Pursuing this same example, when does the process of implementation and adoption of an electronic health record system really begin or end? Such judgements will inevitably be influenced by a range of factors, including the research question, theory of interest, the scope and richness of the gathered data and the resources available to the research team.
Selecting the case(s)
The decision on how to select the case(s) to study is a very important one that merits some reflection. In an intrinsic case study, the case is selected on its own merits. The case is selected not because it is representative of other cases, but because of its uniqueness, which is of genuine interest to the researchers. This was, for example, the case in our study of the recruitment of minority ethnic participants into asthma research (Table 1) as our earlier work had demonstrated the marginalisation of minority ethnic people with asthma, despite evidence of disproportionate asthma morbidity[14,15]. In another example of an intrinsic case study, Hellstrom et al. studied an elderly married couple living with dementia to explore how dementia had impacted on their understanding of home, their everyday life and their relationships.
For an instrumental case study, selecting a "typical" case can work well. In contrast to the intrinsic case study, the particular case which is chosen is of less importance than selecting a case that allows the researcher to investigate an issue or phenomenon. For example, in order to gain an understanding of doctors' responses to health policy initiatives, Som undertook an instrumental case study interviewing clinicians who had a range of responsibilities for clinical governance in one NHS acute hospital trust. Sampling a "deviant" or "atypical" case may however prove even more informative, potentially enabling the researcher to identify causal processes, generate hypotheses and develop theory.
In collective or multiple case studies, a number of cases are carefully selected. This offers the advantage of allowing comparisons to be made across several cases and/or replication. Choosing a "typical" case may enable the findings to be generalised to theory (i.e. analytical generalisation) or to test theory by replicating the findings in a second or even a third case (i.e. replication logic). Yin suggests two or three literal replications (i.e. predicting similar results) if the theory is straightforward and five or more if the theory is more subtle. However, critics might argue that selecting 'cases' in this way is insufficiently reflexive and ill-suited to the complexities of contemporary healthcare organisations.
The selected case study site(s) should allow the research team access to the group of individuals, the organisation, the processes or whatever else constitutes the chosen unit of analysis for the study. Access is therefore a central consideration; the researcher needs to come to know the case study site(s) well and to work cooperatively with them. Selected cases need to be not only interesting but also hospitable to the inquiry  if they are to be informative and answer the research question(s). Case study sites may also be pre-selected for the researcher, with decisions being influenced by key stakeholders. For example, our selection of case study sites in the evaluation of the implementation and adoption of electronic health record systems (see Table 3) was heavily influenced by NHS Connecting for Health, the government agency that was responsible for overseeing the National Programme for Information Technology (NPfIT). This prominent stakeholder had already selected the NHS sites (through a competitive bidding process) to be early adopters of the electronic health record systems and had negotiated contracts that detailed the deployment timelines.
It is also important to consider in advance the likely burden and risks associated with participation for those who (or the site(s) which) comprise the case study. Of particular importance is the obligation for the researcher to think through the ethical implications of the study (e.g. the risk of inadvertently breaching anonymity or confidentiality) and to ensure that potential participants/participating sites are provided with sufficient information to make an informed choice about joining the study. The outcome of providing this information might be that the emotive burden associated with participation, or the organisational disruption associated with supporting the fieldwork, is considered so high that the individuals or sites decide against participation.
In our example of evaluating implementations of electronic health record systems, given the restricted number of early adopter sites available to us, we sought purposively to select a diverse range of implementation cases among those that were available. We chose a mixture of teaching, non-teaching and Foundation Trust hospitals, and examples of each of the three electronic health record systems procured centrally by the NPfIT. At one recruited site, it quickly became apparent that access was problematic because of competing demands on that organisation. Recognising the importance of full access and co-operative working for generating rich data, the research team decided not to pursue work at that site and instead to focus on other recruited sites.
Collecting the data
In order to develop a thorough understanding of the case, the case study approach usually involves the collection of multiple sources of evidence, using a range of quantitative (e.g. questionnaires, audits and analysis of routinely collected healthcare data) and more commonly qualitative techniques (e.g. interviews, focus groups and observations). The use of multiple sources of data (data triangulation) has been advocated as a way of increasing the internal validity of a study (i.e. the extent to which the method is appropriate to answer the research question)[8,18-21]. An underlying assumption is that data collected in different ways should lead to similar conclusions, and approaching the same issue from different angles can help develop a holistic picture of the phenomenon (Table 2).
Brazier and colleagues used a mixed-methods case study approach to investigate the impact of a cancer care programme. Here, quantitative measures were collected with questionnaires before, and five months after, the start of the intervention which did not yield any statistically significant results. Qualitative interviews with patients however helped provide an insight into potentially beneficial process-related aspects of the programme, such as greater, perceived patient involvement in care. The authors reported how this case study approach provided a number of contextual factors likely to influence the effectiveness of the intervention and which were not likely to have been obtained from quantitative methods alone.
In collective or multiple case studies, data collection needs to be flexible enough to allow a detailed description of each individual case to be developed (e.g. the nature of different cancer care programmes), before considering the emerging similarities and differences in cross-case comparisons (e.g. to explore why one programme is more effective than another). It is important that data sources from different cases are, where possible, broadly comparable for this purpose even though they may vary in nature and depth.
Analysing, interpreting and reporting case studies
Making sense and offering a coherent interpretation of the typically disparate sources of data (whether qualitative alone or together with quantitative) is far from straightforward. Repeated reviewing and sorting of the voluminous and detail-rich data are integral to the process of analysis. In collective case studies, it is helpful to analyse data relating to the individual component cases first, before making comparisons across cases. Attention needs to be paid to variations within each case and, where relevant, the relationship between different causes, effects and outcomes. Data will need to be organised and coded to allow the key issues, both derived from the literature and emerging from the dataset, to be easily retrieved at a later stage. An initial coding frame can help capture these issues and can be applied systematically to the whole dataset with the aid of a qualitative data analysis software package.
The Framework approach is a practical approach, comprising of five stages (familiarisation; identifying a thematic framework; indexing; charting; mapping and interpretation), to managing and analysing large datasets particularly if time is limited, as was the case in our study of recruitment of South Asians into asthma research (Table 1)[3,24]. Theoretical frameworks may also play an important role in integrating different sources of data and examining emerging themes. For example, we drew on a socio-technical framework to help explain the connections between different elements - technology; people; and the organisational settings within which they worked - in our study of the introduction of electronic health record systems (Table 3). Our study of patient safety in undergraduate curricula drew on an evaluation-based approach to design and analysis, which emphasised the importance of the academic, organisational and practice contexts through which students learn (Table 4).
Case study findings can have implications both for theory development and theory testing. They may establish, strengthen or weaken historical explanations of a case and, in certain circumstances, allow theoretical (as opposed to statistical) generalisation beyond the particular cases studied. These theoretical lenses should not, however, constitute a strait-jacket and the cases should not be "forced to fit" the particular theoretical framework that is being employed.
When reporting findings, it is important to provide the reader with enough contextual information to understand the processes that were followed and how the conclusions were reached. In a collective case study, researchers may choose to present the findings from individual cases separately before amalgamating across cases. Care must be taken to ensure the anonymity of both case sites and individual participants (if agreed in advance) by allocating appropriate codes or withholding descriptors. In the example given in Table 3, we decided against providing detailed information on the NHS sites and individual participants in order to avoid the risk of inadvertent disclosure of identities[5,25].
What are the potential pitfalls and how can these be avoided?
The case study approach is, as with all research, not without its limitations. When investigating the formal and informal ways undergraduate students learn about patient safety (Table 4), for example, we rapidly accumulated a large quantity of data. The volume of data, together with the time restrictions in place, impacted on the depth of analysis that was possible within the available resources. This highlights a more general point of the importance of avoiding the temptation to collect as much data as possible; adequate time also needs to be set aside for data analysis and interpretation of what are often highly complex datasets.
Case study research has sometimes been criticised for lacking scientific rigour and providing little basis for generalisation (i.e. producing findings that may be transferable to other settings). There are several ways to address these concerns, including: the use of theoretical sampling (i.e. drawing on a particular conceptual framework); respondent validation (i.e. participants checking emerging findings and the researcher's interpretation, and providing an opinion as to whether they feel these are accurate); and transparency throughout the research process (see Table 8)[8,18-21,23,26]. Transparency can be achieved by describing in detail the steps involved in case selection, data collection, the reasons for the particular methods chosen, and the researcher's background and level of involvement (i.e. being explicit about how the researcher has influenced data collection and interpretation). Seeking potential, alternative explanations, and being explicit about how interpretations and conclusions were reached, help readers to judge the trustworthiness of the case study report. Stake provides a critique checklist for a case study report (Table 9).
Potential pitfalls and mitigating actions when undertaking case study research
Stake's checklist for assessing the quality of a case study report
Psychoanalysis has always been, according to its inventor, both a research endeavor and a therapeutic endeavor. Furthermore it is clear from Freud's autobiography that he prioritized the research aspect; he did not become a doctor because he wished to cure people in ill health (Freud, 2001 ). His invention of the psychoanalytic approach to therapy, involving the patient lying down and associating freely, served a research purpose as much as a therapeutic purpose. Through free association, he would be able to gain unique insight in the human mind. Next, he had to find a format to report on his findings, and this would be the case study. The case study method already existed in medicine (Forrester, 2016), but Freud adjusted it considerably. Case studies in medical settings were more like case files, in which the patient was described or reduced to a number of medical categories: the patient became a case of some particular ailment (Forrester, 2016). In Freud's hands, the case study developed into Kranken Geschichten in which the current pathology of the patient is related to the whole of his life, sometimes even over generations.
Although Freud's case studies have demonstrably provided data for generations of research by analysts (Midgley, 2006a) and various scholars (Pletsch, 1982; Sealey, 2011; Damousi et al., 2015), the method of the case study has become very controversial. According to Midgley (2006b), objections against the case study method can be grouped into three arguments. First there is the data problem: case studies provide no objective clinical data (Widlöcher, 1994), they only report on what went right and disregard any confusion or mistakes (Spence, 2001). Second, there is the data analysis problem: the way in which the observations of the case study are analyzed lack validity; case studies confirm what we already know (Spence, 2001). Some go even so far to say that they are purely subjective: Michels calls case studies the “crystallization of the analyst's countertransference” (Michels, 2000, p. 373). Thirdly, there is the generalizability problem: it is not possible to gain generalizable insight from case studies. Reading, writing and presenting case studies has been described as being a group ritual to affirm analysts in their professional identity, rather than a research method (Widlöcher, 1994).
These criticisms stand in contrast to the respect gained by the case study method in the last two decades. Since the 1990s there has been an increasing number of psychoanalytic and psychodynamic clinical case study and empirical case studies being published in scientific journals (Desmet et al., 2013; Cornelis et al., in press). It has also been signaled that the case study method is being revived more broadly in the social sciences. In the most recent, fifth edition of his seminal book on case study research, Yinn (2014) includes a figure showing the steady increase of the frequency with which the term “case study research” appears in published books in the period from 1980 to 2008.
KEY CONCEPT 1. Clinical case study
A clinical case study is a narrative report by the therapist of what happened during a therapy together with the therapist's interpretations of what happened. It is possible that certain (semi)-structured assessment instruments, such as a questionnaire or a diagnostic interview are included in clinical case studies, yet it is still the therapist that uses these, interprets and discusses them.
KEY CONCEPT 2. Empirical case studies
In an empirical case study data are gathered from different sources (e.g., self-report, observation,…) and there is a research team involved in the analyses of the data. This study can take place either in a naturalistic setting (systematic case study) or in a controlled experimental environment (single-case experiment).
In addition to the controversy about the case study method, psychoanalysis has developed into a fragmented discipline. The different psychoanalytic schools share Freud's idea of the unconscious mind, but they focus on different aspects in his theoretical work. Some of the schools still operate under the wings of the International Psychoanalytic Association, while others have established their own global association. Each school is linked to one or several key psychoanalysts who have developed their own version of psychoanalysis. Each psychoanalytic school has a different set of theories but there are also differences in the training of new psychoanalysts and in the therapeutic techniques that are applied by its proponents.
Based on this heterogeneity of perspectives in psychoanalysis, a research group around the Single Case Archive investigated the current status of case study research in psychoanalysis (Willemsen et al., 2015a). They were particularly interested to know more about the output and methodology of case studies within the different psychoanalytic schools.
KEY CONCEPT 3. Single case archive
The Single Case Archive is an online archive of published clinical and empirical case studies in the field of psychotherapy (http://www.singlecasearchive.com). The objective of this archive is to facilitate the study of case studies for research, clinical, and teaching purposes. The online search engine allows the identification of sets of cases in function of specific clinical or research questions.
Our Survey Among Case Study Authors About their Psychoanalytic School
In order to investigate and compare case studies from different psychoanalytic schools, we first had to find a way of identifying to which school the case studies belonged. This is very difficult to judge straightforwardly on the basis of the published case study: the fact that someone cites Winnicott or makes transference interpretations doesn't place him or her firmly within a particular psychoanalytic school. The best approach was to ask the authors themselves. Therefore, we contacted all case study authors included in the Single Case Archive (since the time of our original study in 2013, the archive has expanded). We sent emails and letters in different languages to 445 authors and received 200 replies (45% response rate). We asked them the following question: “At the time you were working on this specific case, to which psychoanalytic school(s) did you feel most attached?” Each author was given 10 options: (1) Self Psychology (1.a Theory of Heinz Kohut, 1.b Post-Kohutian Theories, 1.c Intersubjective psychoanalysis), (2) Relational psychoanalysis, (3) Interpersonal psychoanalysis, (4) Object relational psychoanalysis (4.a Theory of Melanie Klein, 4.b Theory of Donald W. Winnicott, 4.c Theory of Wilfred R. Bion, 4.d Theory of Otto F. Kernberg), (5) Ego psychology (or) “Classic psychoanalysis” (5.a Theories of Sigmund Freud, 5.b Ego psychology, 5.c Post-Ego psychology), (6) Lacanian psychoanalysis, (7) Jungian psychoanalysis, (8) National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis (NPAP) related theory, (9) Modern psychoanalysis related to the Boston or New York Graduate School of Psychoanalysis (BGSP/NYGSP), (10) Other. Respondents could indicate one or more options.
Analysis of the responses indicated that the two oldest schools in psychoanalysis, Object-relations psychoanalysis and Ego psychology, dominate the field in relation to case studies that are published in scientific journals. More than three quarters of all case study authors (77%) reported these schools of thought to be the ones with which they considered themselves most affiliated. Three more recent schools were also well-represented among case studies: Self Psychology, Relational Psychoanalysis, and Interpersonal Psychoanalysis. Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Jungian Psychoanalysis, NPAP related Theory and Modern Psychoanalysis related to the BGSP/NYGSP were only rarely mentioned by case study authors as their school of thought. This does not mean that clinicians or researchers within these latter schools do not write any case studies. It only means that they publish few case studies in the scientific journals included in ISI-ranked journals indexed in Web of Science. But they might have their own journals in which they publish clinical material.
Our survey demonstrated that the majority of case study authors (59%) feel attached to more than one psychoanalytic school. This was in fact one of the surprising findings in our study. It seems that theoretical pluralism is more rule than exception among case study authors. There were some differences between the psychoanalytic schools though in terms of pluralism. Case study authors who feel attached to Self Psychology and Interpersonal Psychoanalysis are the most pluralistic: 92 and 86%, respectively also affiliate with one or more other psychoanalytic schools. Case study authors who feel attached to Object Relations Psychoanalysis are the “purest” group: only 69% of them affiliate with one or more other psychoanalytic schools.
KEY CONCEPT 4. Theoretical pluralism
A situation in which several, potentially contradicting, theories coexist. It is sometimes interpreted as a sign of the immaturity of a science, under the assumption that a mature science should arrive at one single coherent truth. Others see theoretical pluralism as unavoidable for any applied discipline, as each theory can highlight only part of reality.
Psychoanalytic Pluralism and the Case Study Method
We were not really surprised to find that Object Relations psychoanalysis and Ego psychology were the most dominant schools in the field of psychoanalytic case studies, as they are very present in European, Latin-American and North-American psychoanalytic institutes. We were more surprised to find such a high degree of pluralism among these case study authors, given the fact that disputes between analysts from different schools can be quite ardent (Green, 2005; Summers, 2008). Others have compared the situation of psychoanalytic schools with the Tower of Babel (Steiner, 1994).
It has been argued that the case study method contributes to the degree of theoretical pluralism within psychoanalysis. The reason for this is situated in the reasoning style at the basis of case study research (Chiesa, 2010; Fonagy, 2015). The author of a psychoanalytic case study makes a number of observations about the patient within the context of the treatment, and then moves to a conclusion about the patient's psychodynamics in general. The conclusion he or she arrives at inductively gains its “truth value” from the number and quality of observations it is based on. This style of reasoning in case study research is very similar to how clinicians reason in general. Clinicians look for patterns within patients and across patients. If they make similar observations in different patients, or if other psychoanalysts make similar observations in their patients, the weight of the conclusion becomes greater and greater. The problem with this reasoning style is that one can never arrive at definite conclusions: even if a conclusion is based on a large number of observations, it is always possible that the next observation disconfirms the conclusion. Therefore, it could be said, it is impossible to attain “true” knowledge.
The above argument is basically similar to objections against any kind of qualitative research. To this, we argue with Rustin (2003) that there is not one science and no hierarchy of research methods. Each method comes with strengths and weaknesses, and what one gains in terms of control and certainty in a conventional experimental setup is lost in terms of external validity and clinical applicability. Numerous researchers have pleaded for the case study approach as one method among a whole range of research methods in the field of psychoanalysis (Rustin, 2003; Luyten et al., 2006; Midgley, 2006b; Colombo and Michels, 2007; Vanheule, 2009; Hinshelwood, 2013). Leuzinger-Bohleber makes a distinction between clinical research and extra-clinical research (Leuzinger-Bohleber, 2015). Clinical research is the idiographic type of research conducted by a psychoanalyst who is working with a patient. Unconscious phantasies and conflicts are symbolized and put into words at different levels of abstraction. This understanding then molds the perception of the analyst in subsequent clinical situations; even though the basic psychoanalytic attitude of “not knowing” is maintained. The clinical case study is clinical research par excellence. Extra-clinical research consists in the application of different methodologies developed in the natural and human sciences, to the study of the unconscious mind. Leuzinger-Bohleber refers to empirical psychotherapy research, experimental research, literature, cultural studies, etc. We believe that the clinical case study method should step up and claim its place in psychoanalytic research, although we agree that the method should be developed further. This paper and a number of others such as Midgley (2006b) should facilitate this methodological improvement. The clinical research method is very well-suited to address any research question related to the description of phenomena and sequences in psychotherapy (e.g., manifestation and evolution of symptoms and therapeutic relationship over time). It is not suitable for questions related to causality and outcome.
We also want to point out that there is a new evolution in the field of psychotherapy case study research, which consists in the development of methodologies for meta-studies of clinical case studies (Iwakabe and Gazzola, 2009). The evolution builds on the broader tendency in the field of qualitative research to work toward integration or synthesis of qualitative findings (Finfgeld, 2003; Zimmer, 2006). The first studies which use this methodology have been published recently: Widdowson (2016) developed a treatment manual for depression, Rabinovich (2016) studied the integration of behavioral and psychoanalytic treatment interventions, and Willemsen et al. (2015b) investigated patterns of transference in perversion. The rich variety of research aims demonstrates the potential of these meta-studies of case studies.
KEY CONCEPT 5. Meta-studies of clinical case studies
A meta-study of clinical case studies is a research approach in which findings from cases are aggregated and more general patterns in psychotherapeutic processes are described. Several methodologies for meta-studies have been described, including cross-case analysis of raw data, meta-analysis, meta-synthesis, case comparisons, and review studies in general.
Lack of Basic Information in Psychoanalytic Case Studies
The second research question of our study (Willemsen et al., 2015a) concerned the methodological, patient, therapist, and treatment characteristics of published psychoanalytic case studies. All studies included in the Single Case Archive are screened by means of a coding sheet for basic information, the Inventory of Basic Information in Single Cases (IBISC). The IBISC was designed to assess the presence of basic information on patient (e.g., age, gender, reasons to consult), therapist (e.g., age, gender, level of experience), treatment (e.g., duration, frequency, outcome), and the methodology (e.g., therapy notes or audio recoding of sessions). The IBISC coding revealed that a lot of basic information is simply missing in psychoanalytic case studies (Desmet et al., 2013). Patient information is fairly well-reported, but information about therapist, treatment and methodology are often totally absent. Training and years of experience are not mentioned in 84 and 94% of the cases, respectively. The setting of the treatment is not mentioned in 61% of the case studies. In 80% of the cases, it was not mentioned whether the writing of the case studies was on the basis of therapy notes, or audiotapes. In 91% of the cases, it was not mentioned whether informed consent was obtained.
Using variables on which we had more comprehensive information, we compared basic information of case studies from different psychoanalytic schools. This gave us a more detailed insight in the type of case studies that have been generated within each psychoanalytic school, and into the difference between these schools in terms of the kind of case study they generate. We found only minimal differences. Case studies in Relational Psychoanalysis stand out because they involve older patients and longer treatments. Case studies in Interpersonal Psychoanalysis tend to involve young, female patients and male therapists. Case study authors from both these schools tend to report on intensive psychoanalysis in terms of session frequency. But for the rest, it seems that the publication of case studies throughout the different psychoanalytic schools has intensified quite recently.
Guidelines for Writing Clinical Case Studies
One of the main problems in using psychoanalytic case studies for research purposes is the enormous variability in quality of reporting and inconsistency in the provision of basic information about the case. This prevents the reader from contextualizing the case study and it obstructs the comparison of one case study with another. There have been attempts to provide guidelines for the writing of case studies, especially in the context of analytic training within the American Psychoanalytic Association (Klumpner and Frank, 1991; Bernstein, 2008). However, these guidelines were never enforced for case study authors by the editors from the main psychoanalytic journals. Therefore, the impact of these guidelines on the field of case study research has remained limited.
Here at the end of our focused review, we would like to provide guidelines for future case study authors. Our guidelines are based on the literature and on our experience with reading, writing, and doing research with clinical case studies. We will include fragments of existing case studies to clarify our guidelines. These guidelines do not provide a structure or framework for the case study; they set out basic principles about what should be included in a case study.
First of all, we think that a clinical case study needs to contain basic information about the patient, the therapist, the treatment, and the research method. In relation to the patient, it is relevant to report on gender, age (or an age range in which to situate the patient), and ethnicity or cultural background. The reader needs to know these characteristics in order to orientate themselves as to who the patient is and what brings them to therapy. In relation to the therapist, it is important to provide information about professional training, level of professional experience, and theoretical orientation. Tuckett (2008) emphasizes the importance for clinicians to be explicit about the theory they are using and about their way of practicing. It is not sufficient to state membership of a particular group or school, because most groups have a wide range of different ways of practicing. In relation to the treatment itself, it is important to be explicit about the kind of setting, the duration of treatment, the frequency of sessions, and details about separate sequences in the treatment (diagnostic phase, follow-up etc.). These are essential features to share, especially at a time when public sector mental health treatment is being subjected to tight time restrictions and particular ways of practising are favored over others. For example short-term psychotherapies are being implemented in public services for social and economic reasons. While case studies carried out in the public sector can give us information on those short-term therapies, private practice can offer details about the patient's progress on a long-term basis. Moreover, it is important to report whether the treatment is completed. To our astonishment, there are a considerable number of published case studies on therapies that were not finished (Desmet et al., 2013). As Freud (2001 , p. 132) already advised, it is best to wait till completion of the treatment before one starts to work on a case study. Finally, in relation to the research method, it is crucial to mention which type of data were collected (therapy notes taken after each session, audio-recordings, questionnaires, etc.), whether informed consent was given, and in what way the treatment was supervised. Clinicians who would like to have help with checking whether they included all necessary basic information case use the Inventory for Basic Information in Single Cases (IBISC), which is freely available on http://www.singlecasearchive.com/resources.
Motivation to Select a Particular Patient
First of all, it is crucial to know what the motivation for writing about a particular case comes from. Some of the following questions should be kept in mind and made explicit from the beginning of the case presentation. Why is it interesting to look at this case? What is it about this case or the psychotherapist's work that can contribute to the already existing knowledge or technique?
“This treatment resulted in the amelioration of his [obsessive-compulsive] symptoms, which remained stable eight years after treatment ended. Because the standard of care in such cases has become largely behavioral and pharmacological, I will discuss some questions about our current understanding of obsessive-compulsive phenomena that are raised by this case, and some of the factors that likely contributed to the success of psychoanalytic treatment for this child (McGehee, 2005, p. 213–214).”
This quotation refers to a case that has been selected on the basis of its successful outcome. The author is then interested to find out what made this case successful.
Informed Consent and Disguise
As regulations on privacy and ethics are becoming tighter, psychotherapists find themselves with a real problem in deciding what is publishable and what is not. Winship (2007) points out that there is a potential negative effect of research overregulation as clinicians may be discouraged from reporting ordinary and everyday findings from their clinical practice. But he also offers very good guidelines for approaching the issue of informed consent. A good practice is asking for consent either at the start of the treatment or after completion of the treatment: preferably not during treatment. It is inadvisable to complete the case study before the treatment has ended. It is also advisable that the process of negotiating consent with the patient is reported in the case study.
“To be sure that Belle's anonymity was preserved, I contacted her while writing this book and told her it would not be published without her complete approval. To do this, I asked if she would review every word of every draft. She has (Stoller, 1986, p. 217).”
In relation to disguise, one has to strike a balance between thin and thick disguise. Gabbard (2000) suggests different useful approaches to disguising the identity of the patient.
Patient Background and Context of Referral or Self-Referral
It is important to include relevant facts about the patient's childhood, family history, siblings, any trauma or losses and relationship history (social and romantic) and the current context of the patient's life (family, working, financial). The context of referral is also key to understanding how and why the patient has come to therapy. Was the patient encouraged to come or had wanted to come? Has there been a recent crisis which prompted the intervention or an on-going problem which the patient had wanted to address for some time?
“Michael was one of the youngest children in his family of origin. He had older brothers and sisters who had been received into care before his birth. His parents separated before he was born. There had been some history of violence between them and Michael was received into care on a place of safety order when he was an infant because his mother had been unable to show consistent care toward him (Lykins Trevatt, 1999, p. 267).”
Patient's Narrative, Therapist's Observations, and Interpretations
A case study should contain detailed accounts of key moments or central topics, such as a literal transcription of an interaction between patient and therapist, the narration of a dream, a detailed account of associations, etc. This will increase the fidelity of the case studied, especially when both patient's and therapist's speech are reported as carefully as possible.
“Martha spoke in a high-pitched voice which sounded even more tense than usual. She explained that her best friend's mum had shouted at her for being so withdrawn; this made her angry and left her feeling that she wanted to leave their home for good. I told Martha that she often tried to undo her bad feelings by acting quickly on her instincts, as she did not feel able to hold her feelings in her mind and bring them to her therapy to think about with me. Martha nodded but it was not clear whether she could really think about what I just said to her. She then said that she was being held in the hospital until a new foster placement could be found. “In the meantime,” she said in a pleased tone, “I have to be under constant supervision” (Della Rosa, 2015, p. 168).”
In this example, observations of nonverbal behavior and tonality are also included, which helps to render a lively picture of the interaction.
In which frame of reference is the writer operating? It is important to know what theories are guiding the therapist's thinking and what strategies he employs in order to deal with the clinical situation he is encountering. Tuckett (1993) writes about the importance of knowing what “explanatory model” is used by the therapist in order to make sense of the patient and to relate his own thinking to a wider public for the purpose of research. This idea is also supported by Colombo and Michels (2007) who believe that making theoretical orientations as explicit as possible would make the case studies intelligible and more easily employed by the research community. This can be done by the therapists explaining why they have interpreted a particular situation in the way they have. For example, Kegerreis in her paper on time and lateness (2013) stresses throughout how she is working within the object-relations framework and looking out for the patient's use of projective mechanisms.
“She was 10 minutes late. Smiling rather smugly to herself she told me that the wood supplied for her new floor had been wrongly cut. The suppliers were supposed to come and collect it and hadn't done so, so she had told them she was going to sell it to a friend, and they are now all anxious and in a hurry to get it.
I said she now feels as if she has become more powerful, able to get a response. She agrees, grinning more, telling me she does have friends who would want it, that it was not just a ploy.
She said she had found it easier to get up today but was still late. I wondered if she had a sense of what the lateness was about. She said it was trying to fit too much in. She had been held up by discussing the disposal of rubble with her neighbors.
I said I thought there was a link here with the story about the wood. In that she had turned the situation around. She had something that just didn't work, had a need for something, but it was turned around into something that was the suppliers' problem. They were made to feel the urgency and the need. Maybe when she is late here she is turning it around, so it is me who is to be uncertain and waiting, not her waiting for her time to come.
We maybe learn here something of her early object relationships, in which being in need is felt to be unbearable, might lead to an awful awareness of lack and therefore has to be exported into someone else. One could go further and surmise that in her early experience she felt teased and exploited by the person who has the power to withhold what you need (Kegerreis, 2013, p. 458).”
There can be no doubt reading this extract about the theoretical framework which is being used by the therapist.
Reflexivity and Counter-Transference
A good case study contains a high degree of reflexivity, whereby the therapist is able to show his feelings and reactions to the patient's communication in the session and an ability to think about it later with hindsight, by himself or in supervision. This reflexivity needs to show the pattern of the therapist's thinking and how this is related to his school of thought and to his counter-transferential experiences. How has the counter-transference been dealt with in a professional context? One can also consider whether the treatment has been influenced by supervision or discussion with colleagues.
“Recently for a period of a few days I found I was doing bad work. I made mistakes in respect of each one of my patients. The difficulty was in myself and it was partly personal but chiefly associated with a climax that I had reached in my relation to one particular psychotic (research) patient. The difficulty cleared up when I had what is sometimes called a ‘healing’ dream. […] Whatever other interpretations might be made in respect of this dream the result of my having dreamed it and remembered it was that I was able to take up this analysis again and even to heal the harm done to it by my irritability which had its origin in a reactive anxiety of a quality that was appropriate to my contact with a patient with no body (Winnicott, 1949, p. 70).”
Leaving Room for Interpretation
A case study is the therapist's perspective on what happened. A case study becomes richer if the author can acknowledge aspects of the story that remain unclear to him. This means that not every bit of reported clinical material should be interpreted and fitted within the framework of the research. There should be some loose ends. Britton and Steiner (1994) refer to the use of interpretations where there is no room for doubt as “soul murder.” A level of uncertainty and confusion make a case study scientifically fruitful (Colombo and Michels, 2007). The writer can include with hindsight what he thinks he has not considered during the treatment and what he thinks could have changed the course for the treatment if he had been aware or included other aspects. This can be seen as an encouragement to continue to be curious and maintain an open research mind.
Answering the Research Question, and Comparison with Other Cases
As in any research report, the author has to answer the research question and relate the findings to the existing literature. Of particular interest is the comparison with other similar cases. Through comparing, aggregating, and contrasting case studies, one can discover to what degree and under what conditions, the findings are valid. In other words, the comparison of cases is the start of a process of generalization of knowledge.
“Although based on a single case study, the results of my research appear to concur with the few case studies already in the field. In reviewing the literature on adolescent bereavement, it was the case studies that had particular resonance with my own work, and offered some of the most illuminating accounts of adolescent bereavement. Of special significance was Laufer's (1966) case study that described the narcissistic identifications of ‘Michael’, a patient whose mother had died in adolescence. Both Laufer's research and my own were conducted using the clinical setting as a basis and so are reflective of day-to-day psychotherapy practice (Keenan, 2014, p. 33).”
As Yinn (2014) has argued for the social sciences, the case study method is the method of choice when one wants to study a phenomenon in context, especially when the boundaries between the phenomenon and the context are fussy. We are convinced that the same is true for case study methodology in the fields of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. The current focused review has positioned the research method within these fields, and has given a number of guidelines for future case study researchers. The authors are fully aware that giving guidelines is a very tricky business, because while it can channel and stimulate research efforts it can as well-limit creativity and originality in research. Moreover, guidelines for good research change over time and have to be negotiated over and over again in the literature. A similar dilemma is often pondered when it comes to qualitative research (Tracy, 2010). However, our first impetus for providing these guidelines is pedagogical. The three authors of this piece are experienced psychotherapists who also work in academia. A lot of our students are interested in doing case study research with their own patients, but they struggle with the methodology. Our second impetus is to improve the scientific credibility of the case study method. Our guidelines for what to include in the written account of a case study, should contribute to the improvement of the quality of the case study literature. The next step in the field of case study research is to increase the accessibility of case studies for researchers, students and practitioners, and to develop methods for comparing or synthesizing case studies. As we have described above, efforts in that direction are being undertaken within the context of the Single Case Archive.
JW has written paragraphs 1–4; ER and JW have written paragraph 5 together; SK has contributed to paragraph 5 and revised the whole manuscript.
Conflict of Interest Statement
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
Jochem Willemsen is lecturer at the University of Essex. His research interests include the methodology and epistemology of case study research and meta-studies of case studies within the field of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. He is currently research director in the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies at the University of Essex. He has been working for years as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice.
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