Clinical case definition

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In epidemiology, a clinical case definition,[1] a clinical definition, or simply a case definition[2] lists the clinical criteria by which public health professionals determine whether a person's illness is included as a case in an outbreak investigation—that is, whether a person is considered directly affected by an outbreak. Absent an outbreak, case definitions are used in the surveillance of public health in order to categorize those conditions present in a population (e.g., incidence and prevalence).

How are they used[edit]

A case definition defines a case by placing limits on time, person, place, and shared definition with data collection of the phenomenon being studied.[3][4] Time criteria may include all cases of a disease identified from, for example, January 1, 2008 to March 1, 2008. Person criteria may include age, gender, ethnicity, and clinical characteristics such as symptoms (e.g. cough and fever) and the results of clinical tests (e.g. pneumonia on chest X-ray). Place criteria will usually specify a geographical entity such as a town, state, or country, but may be as small as an institution, a school class, or a restaurant meal session. Shared definition of the phenomenon impacts the study methods and ensures terminology is used in a consistent manner.

Case definitions are often used to label individuals as suspect, probable, or confirmed cases. For example, in the investigation of an outbreak of pneumococcal pneumonia in a nursing home the case definition may be specified as:

  • Suspect Case: All residents of Nursing Home A with onset of cough and fever between January 1, 2008 and February 1, 2008.
  • Probable Case: Meet the suspect case definition plus have pneumonia on chest X-ray.
  • Confirmed Case: Meet the probable case definition plus have pneumococcal infection confirmed by blood culture or other isolation of pneumococci from normally sterile site.

By creating a case definition, public health professionals are better equipped to study an outbreak and determine possible causes.

As investigations proceed, a case definition may be expanded or narrowed, a characteristic of the dynamic nature of outbreak investigations. At any given time, the case definition is supposed to be the gold standard to diagnose a given disease. A sensitive case definition, often applied early in an outbreak, will capture all cases, but will include many non-cases. A specific case definition, usually applied after the outbreak is considered more well understood, will exclude most non-cases, but will also exclude some actual cases.[5]

Diagnostic criteria[edit]

The term diagnostic criteria designates a case definition with a specific combination of signs, symptoms, and test results that the clinician uses to attempt to determine the correct diagnosis.

Some examples of diagnostic criteria are:

Clinical definitions[edit]

When diagnostic criteria are universally accepted they can be considered a "clinical definition" because they define the limits of the affected population, determining which patients are inside and outside of the set.[citation needed]

A clinical definition should be regarded as a statistical analysis tool, and not a substitute for a pathological definition when this is required.[6] Posthumous diagnosis allows to establish the sensitivity and specificity of the clinical definitions.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Keou FX1 Bélec L, Esunge PM, Cancre N, Gresenguet G (October 1992). "World Health Organization clinical case definition for AIDS in Africa: an analysis of evaluations". East Afr Med J. 69 (10): 550–3. PMID 1335410.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ Disease Clusters: An Overview Case Definition from the United States Department of Health and Human Services
  3. ^ "Glossary of Epidemiology Terms". Archived from the original on 2003-02-26.
  4. ^ Collin, Lindsay; Reisner, Sari L.; Tangpricha, Vin; Goodman, Michael (2016). "Prevalence of Transgender Depends on the "Case" Definition: A Systematic Review". The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 13 (4): 613–626. doi:10.1016/j.jsxm.2016.02.001. PMC 4823815. PMID 27045261.
  5. ^ "Case definitions for outbreak assessment". Retrieved 2020-11-08.
  6. ^ José Roberto Lambertucci, Revisiting the concept of hepatosplenic schistosomiasis and its challenges using traditional and new tools, Rev. Soc. Bras. Med. Trop. vol. 47 no. 2 Uberaba Mar./Apr. 2014 Epub Apr 11, 2014, doi:10.1590/0037-8682-0186-2013
  7. ^ Saracci R (1991). "Is necropsy a valid monitor of clinical diagnosis performance?". BMJ. 303 (6807): 898–900. doi:10.1136/bmj.303.6807.898. PMC 1671185. PMID 1933005.