A trauma center is a hospital equipped to perform as a casualty receiving station for the emergency medical services by providing the best possible medical care for medical emergencies on a 24 hour, 7 days per week, 365 days per year basis. The trauma center is so-named because a trauma patient often requires immediate and complex surgery in order to survive. One reason for the establishment of trauma centers is the recognition in emergency medicine that a trauma patient needs medical help within one hour of injury, the so-called Golden Hour.

In order to qualify as a trauma center, a hospital must have a number of complex capabilities including a well-stocked emergency room, a strong emergency medicine department supervised by a highly qualified specialist, a surgical service including support services such as X-ray machines, and medical specialists such as cardiologists and neurologists either on duty or on call. A trauma center must also have a helipad for receiving patients by MEDEVAC and well-developed contingency plans for disasters.

Emergency medical technicians, when deciding which hospital to take a patient to, must consider the capabilities of the receiving facility. There is little point to taking a patient to a local community hospital if the patient's condition requires advanced medical care unavailable at that facility.

One of the limitations on a trauma center's operation is sufficient supplies of blood for use in blood transfusions. Other limitations include the number of patients being treated and whether or not a disaster is taking place. A trauma center, like other hospitals may be forced to close its doors to incoming patients if overwhelmed by patients. This is a form of triage; in this case patients are taken to other area and regional facilities which still have the capability of helping severely injured patients.

The operation of a trauma center is extremely expensive. Some areas are under-served by trauma centers because of this expense. Persons injured in remote areas and brought to a trauma center by helicopter often receive faster and better care than a person injured in a city and taken to a normal hospital by ground ambulance.