Trauma and Public Health

Trauma is a leading cause of preventable morbidity and mortality. Each reader will have a different context regarding what causes traumatic injuries locally, from different types of motor vehicles, various weapons or security concerns, unique household and workplace injuries, among others. There are several generalizable public health level considerations that we can all benefit from.

Traumatic injuries occur “at the organic level, resulting from acute exposure to energy (mechanical, thermal, electrical, etc.) in amounts that exceed the threshold of physiologic tolerance” [1]. Historically, humans have viewed traumatic injuries as “accidents”; it’s even what we often call them. This view has made trauma a neglected subset of public health focus and funding, though more recently, there has been an increased recognition from public health entities that traumatic injuries are often preventable and treatable [1].

Every year, more than 5 million people die from injury, which is a mortality rate of more than 1.5 times that of HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria combined [2]. Beyond deaths, nearly one billion people sustain injuries that require health care each year from around the globe [3]. Notably, for every death from injury, there are 20–50 nonfatal injuries that result in some disability [4]. Further, the morbidity from trauma is often long-lasting and impacts the quality of life, productivity, and the financial security of individuals, families, and entire communities [5].

Of the 5 million annual trauma deaths, an estimated 1.3 million people are killed in road traffic crashes each year, and projections indicate these will likely increase by another 65% over the coming two decades [6]. Common throughout the world, pedestrians and two-wheel vehicle users are at greater risk of injury and death than vehicle occupants [7]. As vehicles like cars and trucks are owned and operated by more individuals around the world, such projections make logical sense.

After a traumatic injury occurs, the aim is the progress of a patient through a continuum of trauma care, as represented in the below figure:

Yet, such systems and continuums of care lack around the world. In one 2017 review of trauma systems from around the globe, Dijkink et al. found only 9 of 23 high incomes countries had well-defined and documented national trauma systems. Very few low and middle income (LMIC) countries had a formal trauma system or trauma registry [9]. Of note, most injuries occur in low-income and middle-income countries, and most trauma care research comes from high-income countries [10].

In their review of LMICs developing trauma care system, Reynolds et al. identified several common strengths, including training, prehospital systems, and organization, but also found weaknesses in LMICs’ lack of focus on performing quality-improvement, costing, rehabilitation, and policy around trauma care [10].

Each context, even within countries, has a unique set of advantages and barriers, ranging from well-developed to non-existent: EMS systems, in-hospital diagnosis and treatment, and rehabilitation care. Estimates derived from the Global Burden of Disease data suggest that nearly 2 million lives could be saved every year if case fatality rates among seriously injured persons in low- and middle-income countries were similar to those achieved in high-income countries [10,11].

Moving towards such improvements is a monumental task that requires stepwise action. One tool that can help is something I have written about previously: the World Health Organization’s Basic Emergency Care course. The multi-day course curriculum has been developed to teach a high-yield approach to emergent health problems systematically. The course focuses on triage interventions for treating trauma, breathing, shock, and altered mental status. This framework for knowledge and skills can help to improve the acute care of a traumatic injury in almost any location.

I strongly encourage every reader to take a few minutes to consider what are the local causes of traumatic injury, to think about how your current trauma care system is both doing well and where it needs help. I would ask that you think about what ways you could focus on this crucial public health issue and find ways either through education, advocacy, or otherwise, to improve the health of your local and global community.


  1. Krug et al. The global burden of injuries. Am J Public Health. 2000 Apr;90(4):523-6. DOI: 10.2105/ajph.90.4.523.
  2. World Health Organization, 2014. Injuries and Violence: The Facts. Geneva: WHO
  3. Haagsma et al. 2016. The global burden of injury: incidence, mortality, disability-adjusted life years and time trends from the Global Burden of Disease study 2013. Inj. Prev. 22(1): 3–18
  4. Debas HT, Donkor P, Gawande A, Jamison DT, Kruk ME, Mock CN, eds. 2015. Essential Surgery: Disease Control Priorities, Vol. 1. Washington, DC: Int. Bank Reconstr. Dev./World Bank. 3rd ed.
  5. Wesson HKH, Boikhutso N, Bachani AM, Hofman KJ, Hyder AA. 2014. The cost of injury and trauma care in low- and middle-income countries: a review of economic evidence. Health Policy Plan. 29(6): 795–808.
  6. Global Road Safety Facility (2014) Transport for health: the global burden of disease from motorized road transport. Washington, DC, The World Bank.
  7. Jayanth Paniker, et al. Global trauma: the great divide. SICOT J. 2015; 1: 19. Published online 2015 Jul 21. doi: 10.1051/sicotj/2015019.
  8. National Academy of Sciences, Committee on Military Trauma Care’s Learning Health System; Health and Medicine Division. Berwick D, Downey A, Cornett E, editors. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2016 Sep.
  9. Dijkink S et al. Trauma systems around the world: A systematic overview. J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2017 Nov;83(5):917-925. doi: 10.1097/TA.0000000000001633
  10. Reynolds TA et al. The Impact of Trauma Care Systems in Low- and Middle-Income Countries. Annu Rev Public Health. 2017 Mar 20;38:507-532. doi: 10.1146/annurev-publhealth-032315-021412. Epub 2017 Jan 11.
  11. Mock C, Joshipura M, Arreola-Risa C, Quansah R. 2012. An estimate of the number of lives that could be saved through improvements in trauma care globally. World J. Surg. 36(5): 959–63.


Cite this article as: J. Austin Lee, USA, "Trauma and Public Health," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, May 11, 2020,, date accessed: August 10, 2020

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