In this article, we present our findings on an analysis of a corpus of 108 medical case reports in English. We first summarize the history of our involvement with medical English curriculum development, then present our findings from a discourse analysis of three case reports and a preliminary corpus analysis of the entire collection of articles. We conclude with a consideration of the pedagogical implications.
The following research questions are addressed:
1. What textual features of medical case reports can be identified?
2. From a small initial corpus of case reports, is it possible to identify key lexical items and formulaic sequences?
The results of the analyses show that although the medical terminology of case reports may be challenging, their overall organization and structure is quite simple, comprising three main sections (introduction, case presentation/report, and discussion) plus an abstract and references. The introduction describes the key area and introduces the new case. The case presentation/report narrates the salient features of the case, and the discussion involves an explanation of why the case is interesting or unusual, usually citing other literature in the area, and concluding with some suggestions. From the detailed corpus analysis a variety of terms and expressions that occur frequently and in a wide range of case reports can be identified. For example, phrases such as “We report a case . . .” are used to introduce the atypical case described in the study, and the modal verbs ‘may’ and ‘can’ often collocate with ‘be’ in the suggestions made by the authors in the discussion.
In the section on pedagogical implications, we discuss the difference between reading case reports and actually writing them. While reading and analyzing case reports can start relatively early in students’ medical studies, we argue that writing case reports is too big a challenge for third-year undergraduates. However, these students could be taught first to write up usual rather than rare cases by using simulated patient information, effectively developing skills for the presentation section of a case report. For the writing of actual case reports, we consider how training in basic corpus analysis could be provided, enabling researchers to build small corpora relevant to their needs.