What is Advanced Trauma Life Support?

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  • Written By: M. DePietro
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2019
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Advanced trauma life support (ATLS) is a training program developed by the American College of Surgeons. The course teaches physicians an effective, systematic assessment and treatment approach for trauma patients. Outside of the United States the class is sometimes called Early Management of Severe Trauma.

This approach is intended to help doctors establish treatment priorities and lead a trauma team. The goal of advanced trauma life support is to decrease mortality. Classes can be located through hospitals, medical centers, emergency medical service organization, and the American College of Surgeons.

Participates in advanced trauma life support classes will learn how to complete a systemic, primary assessment to identify the most serious injuries and conditions. Included in a primary survey are assessment of airway, breathing, circulation, neurological status, and hypothermia. Students also learn how to develop treatment priorities for life-threatening conditions. Physicians also learn a definite diagnosis does not have to be established prior to initiating lifesaving treatments.

Skills needed to treat trauma patients are reviewed and include insertion of a breathing tube and chest tube, management of serious head trauma, and shock treatment. Both pediatric and adult trauma management is reviewed. Management of trauma to the abdomen and chest are also discussed. After a primary survey is done and initial treatment is given, a secondary survey is completed. A secondary survey is needed to identify and treat additional injuries, which may not be an immediate threat to life.


The idea for advanced trauma life support training originated in part with the case of a doctor whose wife and four children were involved in a plane crash in 1976. The physician was piloting the plane when it crashed in Nebraska. His wife was killed, and three of his children were critically injured. He was dissatisfied with the treatment of his children, and worked to develop a new approach to assessing and treating trauma patients.

A collaborative effort began among emergency medical services, along with nursing and physician organizations, to develop guidelines for assessing trauma patients. The protocols were modified by the American College of Surgeons in 1980. Occasionally protocol revisions take place as medical research changes.

Courses in advanced trauma life support are taught throughout the United States and worldwide. Although the classes are intended for doctors who deal with trauma patients, physician assistants and nurse practitioners may audit the class. Paramedics may also take the course. An ATLS course is two days for a total of 16 hours. A written and practical exam must be passed to earn an ATLS certification.


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