What's the difference between an ER and a trauma center?

Knowing whether you should go to an emergency room or trauma center is important.
Knowing whether you should go to an emergency room or trauma center is important.
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Most of us know that if we're injured or experiencing a life-threatening medical situation, we don't have to Google "where do I go when my heart stops?" to find the nearest treatment center. In an emergency, we go to the emergency room or department of the nearest hospital. We usually don't spend a lot of time thinking about which one, or the differences we might encounter between facilities.

But there are actually quite a few differences between what emergency departments can handle, and one of the most basic differences is whether an ER has a trauma center designation. And let's be clear from the start: We're not telling you that the next time you're in a life-threatening situation you need to do your homework about which to go to. An emergency room is equipped to handle life-threatening situations; it might just mean they have to stabilize you before transferring to another facility. However, knowing the difference between a trauma center and ER might be useful background information, should you ever find yourself confused about which facility to get yourself to.

An emergency department (or emergency room, as most of us call it) is equipped to handle all sorts of injuries, illnesses or events. Broken arms, heart attacks, strokes — any ER should be able to treat you. An emergency department, however, might not have specialists available to immediately and effectively treat some of the most serious cases of trauma.

Which brings us to the definition of "trauma." Let's be clear: we're not saying that a person having a heart attack is not going through a traumatic event. They certainly are, and let's not act like their experience is less important. But when it comes to medical care, certain injuries need treatment that isn't available at every facility. A traumatic injury is one that results in a blunt (i.e., often internal), penetrating (a gunshot wound, for example) injury or a severe burn that needs absolutely immediate and critical intervention [source: Lee Memorial Health System].

These types of traumas might require surgeons and specialists, who are on call at all times in a trauma center. In a standard emergency department, the facilities may not be able to accept all forms of traumatic injury, or simply have the sub-specialists needed for the most critical care. And keep in mind that not all trauma centers are identical; there are several levels of trauma center (Level I being the most equipped) so there might be different criteria to choose from.

Now remember that if you're involved in an accident or emergency that requires a trauma center, you're not going to have to pick and choose. Local emergency responders are going to know exactly where you should go and why.

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  • Darrigan, David. "What's the difference between an ER and a trauma center?" Texoma Medical Center. 2015. (April 6, 2015) http://www.texomamedicalcenter.net/health-information/health-news-online-fall-2014/difference-between-er-and-trauma
  • Lee Memorial Health System. "Frequently Asked Questions." 2015. (April 6, 2015) http://www.leememorial.org/trauma/about_us.asp
  • Providence Holy Cross Medical Center. "Difference Between Emergency, Trauma and Urgent Care." 2015. (April 6, 2015) http://california.providence.org/holy-cross/services/emergency/patient-family-support/emergency-trauma-urgent-care/
  • Rebock, Michael. "Trauma Center vs. ER: What's the Difference?" Botsford Healthsource. Summer 2010. (April 6, 2015) http://www.botsford.org/health_information/healthsource/2010/Summer.pdf
  • UnityPoint Health. "ER vs. Trauma Center: What's the Difference?" Jan. 9, 2015. (April 6, 2015) http://www.unitypoint.org/livewell/article.aspx?id=cafe17aa-df46-410c-9b6d-7855bf760f83&ER%20vs.%20Trauma%20Center:%20What%27s%20the%20Difference?%20(Infographic)