LifePoint Hospitals Inc. said Friday its fourth quarter profit fell 5 percent as some expenses climbed, and the rural hospital operator saw drops in admissions and surgeries performed at locations it operated over the past year.

Chairman and CEO William F. Carpenter III said in a statement the company has flexibility to invest in key strategies, which include growth through acquisition. He said LifePoint was "enthusiastic" about a joint venture with Duke University Health System to buy community hospitals in North Carolina and surrounding markets.

"The acquisition environment is rich with opportunities, and we are well positioned to capitalize on transactions that meet our criteria," he said in the statement.

LifePoint runs 52 hospital sites in 17 states.

The results beat analysts' estimates, but its forecast for earnings in 2011 suggested it could come in below current Wall Street expectations. Its shares slipped 27 cents to $36.76 in morning trading.

The Brentwood, Tenn., company said its net income slipped to $36.2 million, or 70 cents per share, in the three months ended Dec. 31 from $38 million, or 70 cents per share, in the prior year period.

Revenue climbed 14 percent to $853.3 million from $746.9 million a year ago.

Analysts surveyed by FactSet expected, on average, earnings of 67 cents per share on $834.1 million in revenue.

LifePoint said its salaries and benefits increased 13 percent to $335.2 million in the quarter, and it set aside $120.4 million for doubtful accounts, up 28 percent from the final quarter of 2009.

Admissions at hospitals it operated over the past year fell 4 percent, inpatient surgeries dropped 5 percent, and outpatient procedures fell slightly.

For the full year, LifePoint said its net income rose to $155.5 million, or $2.91 per share, from $134.1 million, or $2.49 a share, a year ago. Revenue rose to $3.26 billion from $2.96 billion a year ago.

For 2011, the company expects earnings per share to range from $2.80 to $3.10. Analysts, on average, expect earnings of $3.09 per share.