What does "Length of Stay" Mean?

Mary McMahon

Length of stay (LOS) is the amount of time someone spends in a single hospital visit, determined by subtracting the date of admission from the date of discharge. Care providers maintain copious statistics covering hospital visits to learn more about the time people can expect to spend in the hospital for treatment of various conditions. Insurance companies and government agencies are usually interested in these statistics, as they may determine the size of the payout for various types of hospital stays.

Insurance companies often encourage hospitals to discharge patients as quickly as possible.
Insurance companies often encourage hospitals to discharge patients as quickly as possible.

Average length of stay is a statistic determined by comparing patients with similar conditions to see how long they remain in the hospital for treatment. This gives people an idea of how many days they can expect to be in the hospital, allowing them to prepare for hospitalizations. In addition, care providers can use these statistics to see when beds will be available and to develop treatment plans appropriate to patient needs.

A number of factors can influence length of stay. Complications may develop, extending the hospital stay by requiring patients to stay for monitoring. Comorbidities can be a problem, as patients in the hospital for one thing may have other medical issues that complicate treatment; a patient with allergies, for example, may not be able to take the standard medication regimen used to treat an infection, requiring a longer hospital stay.

For insurance providers, length of stay statistics are important. Insurance providers may only cover the average length of stay, leaving patients to pay the rest out of pocket, unless there is a compelling reason for a longer hospitalization. Some providers attempt to keep length of stay short by paying out flat fees for hospital services, encouraging hospitals to discharge patients quickly because they don't get extra money for keeping them hospitalized. This can cause problems; a teen with an eating disorder, for example, might run out of time on an insurance policy, forcing the clinic to write discharge papers even though the patient is not ready to leave.

People preparing for procedures where hospitalization can be expected can ask about the length of stay they can expect, given the specifics of the case and the experience of the physician. It is important to be aware of the fact that doctors can only provide an estimate; something “routine” could turn into a more serious problem and require more time in the hospital for treatment, and there is no way to predict when and how complications will arise.

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