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 Table of Contents    
Year : 2019  |  Volume : 61  |  Issue : 6  |  Page : 644-648
Case presentation in academic psychiatry: The clinical applications, purposes, and structure of formulation and summary

Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India

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Date of Web Publication5-Nov-2019

How to cite this article:
Manjunatha N. Case presentation in academic psychiatry: The clinical applications, purposes, and structure of formulation and summary. Indian J Psychiatry 2019;61:644-8

How to cite this URL:
Manjunatha N. Case presentation in academic psychiatry: The clinical applications, purposes, and structure of formulation and summary. Indian J Psychiatry [serial online] 2019 [cited 2020 Aug 6];61:644-8. Available from:

   Introduction Top

Case presentation in an academic psychiatry traditionally follows one of the following three formats: 4DP format (ideal and lengthy format; described in the following section), “Case Summary” (CS) (medium format), or “Case Formulation” (CF) (short format), in order of the decreasing length, duration, and the gradual transition from the use of layman terms (in the history with a goal of layman understanding) to technical terms (in diagnostic formulation [DF] with a goal to communicate with professionals). However, the medium and short formats (CS and CF) are often preferred as a rule rather than exception routinely than the ideal and lengthy 4DP format in the area of academic psychiatry.

An ideal case presentation in academic psychiatry follows 4DP format: first is the “Detailed presentations of all clinical information,” second is the “Diagnostic summary” (DS) (it is optional, see below), third is the “Diagnostic formulation,” fourth is the Diagnosis or differential diagnosis (usually International Classification of Diseases-10 (ICD-10)/Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DSM-5)) and discussion of diagnosis with points in favor and against, and finally is the “Plan of management.” The goal of this article is to overview the clinical applications, purposes, and structure of the “formulation” and “summary” in this article with review from published literatures. [Table 1] represents these formats of presentation graphically.
Table 1: Graphical representation of different formats of case presentations in psychiatry

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   Concepts of “formulation” and “summary:” Shortcomings Top

Despite the availability of substantial literatures, the concepts of “formulation” and “summary” are rather confusing concepts in academic psychiatry, especially with psychiatric residents. There are few shortcomings of these concepts causing this confusion. The presence of various models of formulations in psychiatric literatures is one of the reasons for this confusion such as “psychodynamic formulation,” “psychotherapeutic formulation,” and “cultural formulation.” It is essential to understand the purposes of the existing models of these psychiatric formulations. The “psychodynamic formulation” focuses on psychodynamic understanding of the problems of patients and may involve interventions with psychodynamic psychotherapy, the “psychotherapeutic formulation” aims to understand the problems of patients and helps to choose the different schools of psychotherapy, and the “cultural psychiatric formulation” focuses on understanding of the patient's problems from his/her cultural background. Lack of clarity on this pair of terminologies such as “case formulation” versus “diagnostic formulation” and “case summary” versus “diagnostic summary” in published literatures is another significant reason for confusion. Kuruvilla and Kuruvilla[1] in their article entitled “diagnostic formulation” denotes the inclusion of diagnosis (at least the differential diagnosis) and plan of management in the formulation. The author wishes to convey that “diagnostic formulation” and “case formulation” (formulating a case) are rather different concepts with different purposes. The concept “CF” denotes for formulating a case for the purpose of both diagnostic and management purposes, whereas “DF” with the term “diagnostic” denotes diagnostic point of view only (where term itself denotes diagnosis), which excludes the “plan of management.” The similar explanation is offered to differentiate “CS” and “DS.” Often, these pairs of terminology are used synonymously causing confusion. Further discussion in this article is based on the above explanations of all these four terms. However, if examiners/teachers ask to present DF, it means formulating his/her case for the purpose of diagnostic purpose, which need not include the management plan. For the sake of better clarity, the author wishes to discuss student-friendly models of formulation, summary, and diagnosis, edited by Professor David Goldberg. Along with experienced teachers, trainees themselves are involved in deriving these concepts in explaining Professor D. Goldberg's concepts which is an interesting point.

   Clinical Application of Diagnostic Formulation and Summary Top

Often, the choice of presentation from one of either “DS” or “DF” in academic psychiatry depends on whether the detailed clinical information is presented or not. If detailed clinical information is presented, “DS” may be skipped and proceed directly to presentation of the third step of ideal 4DP format, i.e., “DF.” In case detailed clinical information is not presented for any reasons, the case presentation may begin with “DS” and then may proceed to “DF” (however, it is optional). In either of the ways, both “DS” and “DF” are followed by the fourth step of ideal 4DP format, i.e., the “diagnosis or differential diagnosis” (usually ICD-10 and DSM 5) and discussion of diagnosis with points in favor and against, and finally is the “plan of management.”

The choice of the presentation either “DS”/“DF”, at times, depends on the availability of time with examiners/listeners/faculties. When ample of time are available, the examiners/teachers ask residents to present a detailed presentation of all clinical data in the usual 4DP format of “presenting complaint,” “history of presenting illness,” etc., followed by “DF,” and then plan of management, and this format has the minimal scope of “DS” presentation. However, whenever time is a constraint, residents shall be asked to present the “DS” without a detailed presentation of clinical data followed by with or without “DF.” In any case, psychiatric residents shall be encouraged to learn both DS and DF for any eventuality during examination.

As discussed above, the “CF” traditionally includes only the last three steps (3rd, 4th, and 5th) of 4DP format of psychiatric case presentation. This has relevance from psychodynamic explanation of psychiatric disorders. In view of the significant development in the neurobiology of psychiatric disorders in the last few decades and high dependency of making clinical diagnosis based on the current classificatory system (ICD-10 and DSM 5), the “DF” is preferred which excludes the plan of management than the “CF” as authors believe that the presentation of the “plan of management” itself is an important skill which is expected from psychiatric residents during training and examination. However, whenever a psychiatric resident is asked to present “CF,” he/she shall include the third to fifth steps of ideal format.

   Purpose of Diagnostic Formulation and Summary Top

The important goal of the “DF” is to facilitate the communication of clinical information of patients with another professional/s who are familiar with technical jargons (i.e., psychopathological/psychiatric terminology), whereas the purpose of “DS” is to convey the clinical information of patients to lay persons and/or nonprofessionals and comprises all the components of a DF, but in layman's terminology. The contents of DS may be used for the purpose of psychoeducation to patients and their family.

   Structure of Diagnostic Formulation and Summary Top

The purposes of “DF” and “DS” are important to understand their structure or contents. Since “DF” is targeted for professionals, the technical jargons are used in its content, whereas “DS” is targeted for lay persons or nonprofessionals, and then layman terms are used in its content. The “DF” should be quite brief to just re-orientating the listener to the salient features of the case, often just the key demographics and major diagnostic criteria described in technical terms in as less words as possible without repetition of any word/s. The technical jargons in “DF” often include the terminology of descriptive psychopathology or diagnostic points of classificatory system (ICD-10 and DSM-5). In simple words, the structure of both DF and DS is, more or less, similar in contents, but the difference lies in the use of technical terms and layman's terms, respectively, in its structure/contents. Further details of the structure of DF and DS are discussed below in the proposed format and case vignettes.

   Recommended Size and Time to Present “diagnostic Formulation and “diagnostic Summary Top

The completed DF shall last for about 5 min, and the recommended length for a written version is not more than one side of a A4 paper when typed,[1] which is equivalent to 10 to 15 sentences, whereas the completed DS should be short enough to cover about two sides of a A4 paper when typed,[2] which should not be more than 10 min.

   Summary, Formulation, and Diagnosis: Model by Professor David Goldberg Top

The following paragraphs exerted in italic (without any edition to preserve the semantic) from “The Maudsley Handbook of Practical Psychiatry” were edited by Professor David Goldberg. The author feels that these paragraphs are important to understand the difference between the process of summary, formulation, and diagnosis. The author intentionally deleted diagnostic points and management plan from the discussion to keep focus on DF only.

A SUMMARY is a descriptive account of collected data: Objective and impartial. In contrast, a FORMULATION is a clinical opinion: Weighing up the pros and cons of conflicting evidence, that leads to a diagnostic choice. An opinion inevitably implies a subjective view point, by virtue of assigning relative importance to each piece of evidence; in doing so, both theoretical bias and past personal experience invariably come to play. No matter how accurate the final verdict, an analysis is inextricably bound up with subjective judgments and decisions. When assigning the same patient, two experts may produce two similar summaries, but two different formulations with divergent conclusions. This is the fundamental difference: A SUMMARY is a descriptive, whereas a formulation is analytical. Therefore, a summary calls for the qualities of thoroughness, restraint, and objectivity, while a formulationdemands the composite skill of methodological thinking, incisive analysis and intelligent presentation.


It is an important document which should be drawn up with care. Its purpose is to provide a concise description of all the important aspects of the case, enabling others who are unfamiliar with the patient to grasp the essential features of the problem without needing to search elsewhere for further information. The completed summary should be short enough to cover about two sides of A4 paper when typed.


Formulating a case with clarity and precision is probably the most testing yet challenging and crucial part of a psychiatric assessment. The skills of writing a good formulation depend upon the ability to differentiate what are merely the incidental and circumstantial biographical details from what are the salient and discriminatory features and it is this that forms the cornerstone of a clinical diagnosis. Certain features are discriminatory because they support one diagnosis as more likely candidate and discount another diagnosis as less likely.


A diagnosis involves a nomothetic

(literally “law-giving”) process. This means that all cases included within the identified category have one or more properties in common. By contrast, the formulation is an idiographic process

(literally “picture of the individual”). This means that it includes the unique characteristics of each patient's case which are needed for the process of management. So, while nomothetic processes are the only way we can advance knowledge about a disease, we use idiographic methods to understand and study the individual.


The formulation follows a logical sequence.

Demographic data: Begins with name, age, occupation, and marital status of the patient.

Descriptive formulation: Describe the nature of onset,– for example, acute or insidious; the total duration of the present illness; and course; for instance, cyclic or deteriorating. Then list of the main phenomena (namely, symptoms and signs) that characterize the disorder. As you become more experienced you should try to be selective by featuring those phenomena that are most important, either because of their diagnostic specificity or because of their predominance in severity or duration. Avoids long lists of minor or transient symptoms and negative findings. These basic data are chiefly derived from history of the present illness; the mental state and physical examinations are used to determine the syndrome diagnosis in the next section. Note that this is not usually the place to bring in other aspects of the history: That comes later. If we know the diagnosis of a previous episode of mental illness, this should also be taken into account, but remember, the present disorder may not be connected and the diagnosis may be different.

Etiology: The various factors that have contributed should be evident mainly from the family and personal histories, the history of previous illness, and the premorbid personality. Try to answer two questions: Why this patient developed this particular disorder, and why has the disorder developed at this particular time?

   Proposed Formats of “diagnostic Summary” and “diagnostic Formulation” Top

The general formats of “DS” and “DF” are essentially similar with slight changes in order of the presentation, which aim to reduce the number of words as well as to avoid the repetition of words.

  1. Sociodemographic data
  2. Elaboration of chief complaint with focus on positive aspects with relevant negative aspects: Presenting the long list of minor or transient symptoms and negative findings is advisable in DS to differentiate in the differential diagnosis which may be avoided in DF. Treatment history also needs to be briefed here. Please note that layman terms shall be used in DS, whereas technical jargons are used in DF
  3. Past psychiatric and medical history: Briefly describe the symptoms of the past psychiatric disorder and then write possible name for that psychiatric disorder in DS, whereas directly write psychiatric diagnosis in DF
  4. Family history: Briefly describe symptoms and age of the onset of psychiatric disorder, and then write possible name of that psychiatric disorder in DS, whereas directly write psychiatric diagnosis in DF
  5. Personal history: Briefly describe the positive aspects of personal history in DS, whereas the use of possible technical jargon in DF is advised
  6. Premorbid personality: Describe briefly each headings of premorbid personality followed by impression in DS, whereas give directly the impression in DF, i.e., well-adjusted or schizoid/schizotypal/anxious avoidant/personality traits/disorder
  7. Physical examination: Briefly describe positive findings in DS, whereas technical comments in DF using medial jargons
  8. Mental Status Examination (MSE): Briefly describe positive findings first, then give impression of that finding using psychopathological terms in DS, whereas directly write technical jargons using psychopathological terms in DF. Please note here that, in case of DF, the psychopathological findings in MSE may be similar to the history of presenting illness (HOPI). In this case, mention as “concurred with HOPI findings” in order to avoid repetition of terms (see in case vignette of DF).

Note: Please note that findings from the family and personal histories, the history of previous illness, and the premorbid personality give the etiology of presentation of case. The sequence in the format of DS may be preferred in the same way as above, whereas in DF, etiology-related history such as past, family, and personal histories as well as premorbid personality may be presented before presenting complaints, which reduce the number of words by avoiding the repetition of words (please see in case vignettes of DS and DF).

   Case Vignettes: Demonstration of the Structure of “ds “ and “Df Top

Diagnostic summary

A 36-year-old married and postgraduation-completed male, currently working as a software professional hailing from urban-middle socioeconomic background from Bengaluru, presented with adequate and reliable information of 20-day illness of abrupt onset and continuous course characterized by overcheerfulness, hyperactivity, and unable to sit at one place, overtalkativeness, overfamiliarity, and overspending most of the time in the last 20 days and false and firm claims that he is a minister and demand respect from people in the last 12 days, with decreased need of sleep and appetite disturbance along with socio-occupational dysfunction in the absence of organicity and schizophrenic and depressive symptoms. There was a family history of episodic mental illness suggestive of bipolar disorder in first-degree relative with age of onset at about 23 years with maintaining asymptomatic with lithium prophylaxis and past history suggestive of episodic mental illness of bipolar disorder in the last 12 years with four similar manic episodes with each 3–5 months' duration and another three depressive episodes characterized by depressed mood, reduced interest, easy fatiguability, and early-morning awakening for about 6–8 months with poor medication adherence, with nil significant personal history and well-adjusted premorbid personality. No abnormality was found in physical examination. MSE reveals overfamiliarity; easily established rapport; increased tone, tempo, and volume in speech; pacing around excessive suggestive of increased psychomotor activity; expression and observation of overcheerfulness suggestive of elated mood and affect; and delusion of grandiosity of identity for the above claim with impaired judgment and partial insight (total 250 words).

Diagnostic formulation

Mr. Sri, a 36-year-old married and postgraduation-completed male, currently working as a software professional hailing from urban-middle socio-economic status from Bengaluru, with a family history of bipolar disorder in first-degree relative with maintaining remission on lithium prophylaxis, with past history of four manic episodes and three depressive episodes in last 12 years with poor medication adherence, with nil significant personal history and well-adjusted pre-morbid personality, presented with adequate and reliable information of 20-day illness of abrupt onset and continuous course with characterized by elated mood, increased psychomotor activity, inflated self-esteem, excessive and rapid speech, overfamiliarity, and delusion of grandiosity of identity in the last 12 days with severe bio-socio-occupational dysfunction. No abnormality was found in physical examination. MSE is concurred with the above psychopathology with impaired judgment and impaired insight (total 131 words).

Please note that the above case vignettes are not exclusive and minor variation/s are still possible.

   Conclusion Top

The aims of CF/CS are different from that of DF/DS. CF/CS focuses on understanding of the case-as-whole, but DF/DS aims for diagnostic points of view. The clinical applications, purposes, and structure of DF and DS are different. The authors explained hypothetical explanation of case presentation in academic psychiatry, which we feel is relevant in order to reduce the confusion in minds of present and prospective psychiatric residents. The author hope that these hypothetical explanations explained here is welcomed by the community of academic psychiatry.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

   References Top

Kuruvilla K, Kuruvilla A. Diagnostic formulation. Indian J Psychiatry 2010;52:78-82.  Back to cited text no. 1
[PUBMED]  [Full text]  
Goldberg D. Summary, formulation, progress notes, etc. In: The Maudsley Handbook of Practical Psychiatry. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1997. p. 120-8.  Back to cited text no. 2

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Narayana Manjunatha
Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru - 560 029, Karnataka
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_165_10

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