A trauma center is an area of the hospital that’s equipped to treat the most high-risk injuries — such as gunshot wounds, serious car crash injuries, and major burns.
If you experience physical trauma, you’ll receive treatment through a hospital’s emergency department — but not all emergency departments are created equal. In addition to providing emergency care, some hospitals also function as trauma centers, and they’re staffed by specially trained health professionals who treat life-threatening injuries.
Trauma centers offer more extensive care than emergency departments, and the difference between a trauma center and emergency room can mean life and death. So, it’s important to understand what these facilities offer.
The Difference Between Trauma Centers and Emergency Rooms
Trauma centers are typically located within hospitals, often in the emergency department. Emergency rooms provide care to people with injuries ranging from a sprained ankle to a heart attack — and they are staffed with doctors, nurses, and medical experts who handle a variety of conditions.
Trauma centers, on the other hand, are for patients with the most extreme injuries. At trauma centers, you’ll find highly trained clinicians who specialize in treating traumatic injuries, including:
- Trauma surgeons
- Orthopedic surgeons
- Cardiac surgeons
- Registered nurses
They staff the center 24/7 and have access to resources such as an operating room, resuscitation area, laboratory, and diagnostic testing equipment. They are always prepared to treat patients.
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When Should You Go to a Trauma Center?
In the most serious circumstances, paramedics must evaluate a patient’s condition and decide where they go for care.
Trauma centers treat:
- Gunshot and stab wounds.
- Major burns.
- Traumatic car crash injuries.
- Blunt trauma.
- Brain injuries.
Emergency rooms treat:
- Broken bones.
- Fainting or loss of consciousness.
- Heart attacks.
- Less-severe burns.
- Severe vomiting, stomach pains, and/or diarrhea.
Trauma Center Levels
There are five different levels of trauma centers in the United States, but they can vary from state to state — and not every state recognizes all five levels. For example, Pennsylvania only recognizes Levels I through IV.
The American Trauma Society describes the four levels as:
- Level I: The center provides total care, from prevention through rehabilitation. These also offer a teaching program for medical residents and conduct ongoing research. They have the deepest “bench” in terms of available surgical specialties.
- Level II: The center is similar to a Level I trauma center but doesn’t necessarily offer teaching or research. Both Levels I and II can treat either children or adults.
- Level III: The center is smaller than Level I and II centers but can provide prompt care to injured patients.
- Level IV: The center can provide trauma care and life support before patients are transferred to a larger, higher-level trauma center.
How are trauma centers accredited?
All trauma centers must be accredited (officially recognized) by an independent organization. This accreditation varies by state. In Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Trauma Systems Foundation has overseen the accreditation of hospitals since 1986. The Pennsylvania Trauma Systems Foundation accredits trauma centers for a maximum of three years before re-evaluation.
What Is a Trauma System?
A trauma system includes many different facilities and services that work together to provide a full range of care for those who are severely hurt. For example, a trauma system might include a Level I trauma center, emergency medical services, rehabilitation centers, and prevention organizations. These systems are typically organized by geographic area.
Trauma Care at UPMC
UPMC Mercy and UPMC Presbyterian are both Level I trauma centers, while UPMC Hamot, UPMC Williamsport, and UPMC Altoona are Level II. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh serves as a Level I pediatric trauma center. Trauma centers at UPMC are equipped to treat the most seriously injured patients, with operating rooms and specially trained doctors and nurses ready at all times.
Learn more about these services by visiting the UPMC Trauma Care System website.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
Emergencies can happen in the blink of an eye or in a heartbeat. And when they do, minutes matter. UPMC’s Emergency Medicine and Trauma Care services are ready to provide world-class care, no matter how serious your emergency. All our Emergency Departments have a full-time staff of emergency specialists at the ready 24 hours a day. We use advanced technology to diagnose and treat your condition and coordinate with your doctor to provide the best care possible. We also have specialized trauma care at several of our hospitals. If you or a loved one is experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or visit the nearest Emergency Department.