Act fast: The Rationalization of Trauma Surgery Nina Kornchankul


In trauma surgery, time is everything, with each passing moment potentially diminishing a patient's chance of survival. Patients arrive in critical condition, and surgeons face immense pressure to perform flawlessly under time constraints. In these moments, even the briefest delay can have life-long consequences. This high-stress environment, coupled with the constant battle against traumatic injuries, makes trauma surgery an emotionally taxing field. The need for speed and efficiency has driven advancements in the field, saving countless lives. However, some worry this rationalized approach may have unintended consequences, potentially sacrificing the quality of care.


What is Rationalization?

Rationalization, a term initially coined by Max Weber, is the process through which society has replaced traditions, values, and emotions with reason and rational thought. George Ritzer further explored this concept in his book, The McDonaldization of Society, where he compared this phenomenon to the same principles found in the globally successful McDonald’s fast-food chain. In it, he emphasizes four cornerstones of the process: efficiency (finding the fastest way to complete a task), calculability (using statistics to evaluate workers), predictability (ensuring consistent results), and control (directing workers and consumers). Throughout his book, Ritzer highlights the ways in which the principles of McDonaldization have worked their way into our society.

Drive-thrus exemplify the principles of McDonaldization. They prioritize efficiency by letting customers grab food without leaving their cars, calculability by focusing on quantity over quality of food, ensure predictability with consistent meals across locations, and control customer behavior with designated lines and procedures that encourage a quick exit.
"McDonaldization is the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant– efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control– are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world." -George Ritzer


Trauma Surgery in the Civil War

Overview: Minié Balls, Disease, and Surgical Training

Early on in the Civil War, wounded soldiers faced a disorganized medical system that resulted in delayed treatment and slow transport. Injured soldiers were left on the battlefield for days, meaning many died from treatable injuries. Additionally, brutal new weaponry like Minié balls inflicted devastating injuries. While both undoubtedly contributed to avoidable casualties, disease remained the top killer due to poor hygiene and limited medical knowledge. All of this, combined with a lack of training for surgeons and long, exhausting shifts, significantly increased soldier fatalities. This exposed the lack of a proper medical system for soldiers. The urgent need for one led to innovations that would become the foundation for modern trauma surgery, forever changing how battlefield injuries are treated.

Minié ball entrance and exit wounds, depicting the massive injuries caused by this new technology.

The Letterman Plan

Despite the war's initial chaos, the Civil War saw the birth of trauma care systems. Dr. Jonathan Letterman's plan established triage and rapid transport to field hospitals through horse drawn carriages (shown on the right), which dramatically improved soldier survival rates. Faster treatment, in particular by stopping bleeding quickly and performing amputations within 48 hours, significantly reduced deaths. The triage system further prioritized the most critical patients with a simple yes/no approach. This revolutionized efficiency and has remained a cornerstone of modern trauma care despite the trade-offs of prioritizing quantity of lives saved over individual patient care.

Early 1900s and World War I

Clearing Stations and Women in Healthcare

World War I saw a leap in battlefield medicine with motorized ambulances transporting wounded soldiers to specialized clearing stations staffed by surgeons and nurses. These stations saved lives through rapid treatment and by removing soldiers from danger zones. World War I also offered women unprecedented access to the medical field on the frontlines as nurses. This was a crucial step forward despite societal barriers that limited women and minorities in healthcare at the time. However, despite these advances, the sheer number of casualties inflicted by new technology, including machine guns and chemical weapons, still often overwhelmed these stations, leading to overcrowding and outbreaks of disease.

American College of Surgeons and other Organizations

The early 1900s lacked standardized training for surgeons, leading to variable and unpredictable outcomes. However, the emergence of the American College of Surgeons in 1913 established education and hospital standards to ensure patients received a certain level of qualified care. This focus on standardization continued with the creation of the American Board of Surgery in 1937, guaranteeing a national baseline of competency. But progress in surgery was more than just about uniformity. The American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, founded the same year, fostered collaboration. Their meetings and journals allowed surgeons to share ideas and best practices, accelerating advancements in trauma techniques on a global scale.

World War II

Research: Albumin and Antibiotics

World War II saw a surge in trauma research and studies on shock treatment, leading to standardized techniques like using albumin for blood loss. Albumin includes both red blood cells to carry oxygen and plasma, which is much more effective than plasma alone. It improved the care of the wounded and helped stabilize patients before and during surgery. This innovation, proven effective in studies, significantly increased patient survival rates during surgery.

Furthermore, prior to World War II, the lack of readily available antibiotics meant bacterial infections posed a constant threat to trauma patients. Even successful surgeries could be rendered useless by the lack of effective treatments for bacterial infections. However, during the war, research led to the widespread use of antibiotics like penicillin and streptomycin. These medications were immensely effective in combating bacterial infections, significantly reducing the number of amputations needed. The success of antibiotics set a precedent for infection control protocols, ensuring consistent, high-quality care for all wounded soldiers.

Post World War II and the 1960s

After WWII, the first hospital emergency department opened, marking the integration of rationalized wartime trauma techniques into civilian healthcare. This replaced the pre-existing patchwork of local emergency systems, which lacked standardization and often relied on untrained personnel, creating unpredictability and subjectivity in local care. Therefore, this shift brought a new era of predictable and qualified care for injuries outside of war zones.

Death from trauma/injury is the leading cause of death for people under the age of 75.

Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society

A 1966 report by the National Academy of Sciences exposed a hidden epidemic: accidental injuries as the leading cause of death for young Americans. In fact, the report emphasized that "in 1965, 52 million accidental injuries killed 107,000, temporarily disabled over 10 million and permanently impaired 400,000 American citizens at a cost of approximately $18 billion." The report attributed this to the lack of proper emergency care, with poorly equipped ambulances often staffed by untrained personnel. This landmark study called for better emergency services and trauma care to save countless lives, which were implemented in the following ways.


The report exposed the deficiencies in emergency care of first responders leading to the increased rationalization of the field. It laid the groundwork for federal standards, mandating minimum training and establishing a chain of command for Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). This standardized training included crucial skills like CPR, defibrillation, and administering life-saving medications – all proven to significantly improve survival rates. The consistency in training meant all EMTs could stabilize patients to a similar standard, ensuring a seamless handoff to hospitals.

Furthermore, the report emphasized efficiency. It advocated for faster response times, often within five minutes, which essentially brought medical care directly to patients. This critical shift minimized the time it took for patients to receive treatment, potentially saving countless lives. Ambulances became equipped with essential stabilization tools, allowing EMTs to provide basic life support and maximize survival rates before transporting patients to definitive care.

911 and Radio Channels

The National Academy of Sciences' report also addressed communication gaps. The implementation of a nationwide emergency number, 911, facilitated faster response times and allowed dispatchers to gather vital information before sending help. This streamlined communication between civilians and emergency personnel. The report also promoted communication among healthcare providers. Radio channels allowed police, EMTs, and hospitals to seamlessly share patient information, enabling efficient care and avoiding wasted time spent repeating questions. For trauma surgeons, this advance prep time translates to lives saved. Early communication allows them to prepare the operating room and gather necessary information about the incoming patient, maximizing their chance of survival.

Trauma Registries

Furthermore, the digitization of trauma registries emphasized the importance of statistics and calculability in trauma care. These registries track patient data and surgeon performance, allowing hospitals to measure outcomes and improve efficiency. This data-driven approach allows for standardized care and resource allocation based on real-world data. Hospital trauma committees use these to set care standards, ensuring smooth operations in the emergency department. However, hospitals need to be careful that this doesn't lead to a hyper focus on statistics that can detract from patient care.

Standardization in Trauma Surgery

The report also indirectly called for the standardization of techniques through trauma committees that were put in place to establish standardized procedures based off of trauma registry data. However, the debate over standardization in trauma surgery is a heated one. Proponents argue it improves outcomes with techniques proven effective through data analysis. This data-driven approach has led to standardized procedures for common situations, like abdominal closures. Studies show this can lead to faster recovery, fewer complications, and ultimately, higher survival rates. Standardization also ensures consistent care across hospitals and eliminates biases in treatment.

However, critics argue that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work in trauma surgery. This is because trauma cases are often complex, requiring surgeons to improvise and adapt on the fly. A standardized approach could stifle the creativity and critical thinking needed to address unforeseen complications. Additionally, a rigid adherence to protocols can lead to situations where the "best practice" doesn't actually serve the individual patient's best interests. Furthermore, the growing control exerted by committees and regulations can lead to physician burnout. Trauma surgeons face life-or-death situations everyday, and being caught between following a protocol and trusting their own judgment can be a huge emotional burden. This coupled with the feeling of being confined by rules created by non-medical professionals that serve as their supervisors, can be demotivating. The impersonal nature of standardized care is another concern. The focus on efficiency and statistics can come at the expense of the crucial doctor-patient relationship. Surgeons who are forced to treat everyone the same way may struggle to connect with their patients on a personal level.

Ultimately, the key lies in finding a balance. Standardization has undoubtedly improved trauma care, but it shouldn't come at the cost of flexibility and individualization. Trauma surgeons need a foundation of best practices, but also the autonomy to adapt them for each unique patient. Striking this balance will ensure continued progress in the field while preserving the vital role of the skilled, adaptable surgeon.


Advanced Trauma Life Support Program (ATLS)

The 1970s saw the arrival of the ATLS program, which revolutionized trauma care with standardized assessment methods. Tools like the Glasgow Coma Scale and Injury Severity Score provided quantifiable data for patient evaluation. This not only improved communication efficiency but also made medical decisions more objective, replacing reliance solely on doctor observation and patient reports.

CT Scanners

Furthermore, the invention of the full body computed tomography (CT) machine in 1973 was a huge innovation for trauma surgeons. These machines provide detailed 3D views of patients' injuries, allowing surgeons to plan minimally invasive and highly effective treatments. These scans can also uncover unexpected internal bleeding or injuries not visible from the outside. This information is vital for determining the best course of action, potentially saving lives. One study involving over 2,000 blunt trauma patients revealed a staggering 9% had missed injuries without a CT scan. These unseen injuries could have had disastrous consequences if left untreated.

This chart shows results from a study involving 2,103 blunt trauma patients that underscored the importance of CT scans. As shown in the chart, approximately 9% of injuries would have been missed without these scans.

Trauma Center Designations

The establishment of a trauma center categorization system based on specific criteria and metrics, ensured hospitals were equipped to handle different levels of trauma. Ambulances could then transport patients directly to the most appropriate facility, saving crucial time. Strict controls and performance evaluations further improved patient outcomes in designated trauma centers. Studies show a clear benefit, with lower mortality rates compared to undesignated hospitals.

2000s and Recent Innovations

Minimally Invasive Procedures and Robots

Trauma surgery has continued to evolve towards efficiency and predictability in recent years. Minimally invasive techniques like laparoscopy have been implemented because they offer faster patient recovery and less surgical trauma; however, robotic surgery is also on the rise, potentially replacing some minimally invasive procedures due to its increased precision and consistency. This trend reflects a growing desire for control in trauma surgery, a field where human variability can be risky.

The OR Black Box

Furthermore, the continuous invention of new technology like the recent development of the OR Black Box exemplifies the trend of rationalization. It uses AI to monitor operating rooms, identifying areas for improvement like wasted time or inefficient equipment use. This approach mirrors Taylor's Scientific Management, maximizing surgeon efficiency. However, an overemphasis on speed could compromise quality, potentially leading to complications and repeat surgeries. Thus, the key lies in balancing efficiency with the precision and quality needed for successful trauma care.


Altogether, the history of trauma surgery, from its beginnings on the battlefield to its present day in the operating rooms of hospitals, reflects a relentless pursuit of rationalization. Innovations in the standardization of procedures and in technology, including CT scans and antibiotics, have revolutionized patient care. At the same time, minimally invasive techniques and robots have minimized surgical burden. However, the human aspect of healthcare is still something that cannot yet be replaced. While efficiency is vital in trauma surgery, surgeons also need to be adaptable and hone critical thinking skills. Therefore, the ideal future of trauma surgery lies in balancing the strengths of rationalization with the irreplaceable qualities of human surgeons in terms of judgment, creativity, and patient-centered care. By embracing both and using technology to supplement human thought, the field can continue improving patient outcomes and pushing the limits to save lives in the face of death.

Full Term Paper


Author's LinkedIn Profile

This paper and website were created as a culmination of SOCI57H: Rationalization and the Changing Nature of Social Life in 21st-Century America, which is an honors seminar taught by Dr. Aldrich at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The course explores the ways in which rationalization has shaped the world around us, primarily using George Ritzer's principles of McDonaldization to do so. The course revolves around a term paper that students write, analyzing the impact of these principles on their chosen field. This website delves into my research on the rationalization of trauma surgery, a topic explored in my term paper for this course.