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The length of the average hospital stay has dropped since 1980, creating both real and "false" savings, a researcher for the Department of Health and Human Services says.

The average number of days patients spent in hospitals declined from 11 percent to 15 percent in the early 1980s, said Dean Farley, deputy research manager of the Hospital Studies Program in the National Center for Health Services Research and Health Care Technology Assessment.Although the decline has reduced health care costs for individuals, the government and insurers, "in a sense there's a false sense of savings," he said Tuesday.

"While patients are staying a shorter period in the hospitals they are going elsewhere and recuperating," he said.

"Hospitals are reducing their costs," he said. "Insurers and the government are saving money, but patients still need nursing care" and they usually get it from family members, he said.

The average hospital stay declined from 7.35 days in 1980 to 5.71 days in 1985, according to The New York Times, which reported on the findings in Wednesday's editions.

Farley said the decline has occurred even though hospitals are tending to admit patients who are sicker and who therefore stay longer. But for some specific medical conditions the length of stay has been shortened, he said.

He cited the example of women who used to be admitted to hospitals for stays of three to five days for normal delivery of babies now being discharged one or two days after delivery.

"The decline has been very substantial and what has happened is that people (who once were admitted for) relatively short stays aren't getting into the hospitals," Farley said. Instead, he said, they are treated as outpatients.

He said hospitals reacted to policies put in place by insurers and public agencies that believed hospital usage was excessive, but he said the decline now presents a problem of excess capacity.