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Trauma patients continue to improve after discharge from the trauma center, but the completeness of this recovery remains uncertain. The purpose of this study was to compare the characteristics of patients who do and who do not return to work after blunt trauma.Consecutive survivors of blunt trauma discharged from a regional trauma center over a 1-year interval (July of 1994 to June of 1995) were included in the study. Patients completed the SF-36 Health Survey and some additional questions related to employment status both at discharge and again after 1 year. Our principal analysis compared patients who were employed and unemployed at 1-year follow-up.Complete data were available for 195 patients. The typical patient was a young man who had been in a motor vehicle collision and had an injury severity score of 25. At 1-year follow-up, 101 patients had returned to work and 94 remained unemployed. Employed individuals were younger (31 vs. 44 years, p < 0.0001), less severely injured (mean injury severity score 23 vs. 27, p < 0.001), and more likely to hold professional jobs (50 vs. 16%, p < 0.0001). Patterns of injury and operative procedures were similar for employed and unemployed patients. However, the average employed patient had fewer days in the intensive care unit (2 vs. 5 days, p < 0.001), a shorter total hospitalization (19 vs. 28 days, p < 0.01), and was more likely to be discharged to home (62 vs. 39%, p < 0.01). At discharge, those who went on to employment had marginally better SF-36 Health Survey scores on seven of the eight scales (all except general health). During the year after discharge, both groups improved significantly, although employed individuals to a greater extent on all scales of the SF-36 Health Survey.Almost one half of the multiple system blunt trauma patients remain unemployed 1 year after hospital discharge. Those patients who return to work are usually young professionals with a lower severity of injury. Functional status at discharge predicts future employment status, but underestimates the extent of long-term recovery.