It's no secret that Kern County has a shortage of physicians, especially in certain specialties.

On Monday, the Kern County Board of Supervisors approved a plan to use remote high-resolution video and audio technology at Kern Medical Center to bring the expertise of distant specialists into examination rooms at KMC and elsewhere.

Telemedicine, as it is known, can transport the eyes and ears of specialists into local hospitals or remote clinics, without bringing them physically into Kern County.

Approved by a unanimous vote, the agreement with the California Telehealth Network will provide a lot of privacy-protected, medical-quality broadband connectivity at a low cost thanks to some grant funding, said KMC Chief Executive Officer Paul Hensler.

In fact, the cost to KMC is just $625 per year, less than most households pay for premium cable service.

"It has a lot of potential," Hensler said.

KMC has been using similar technology for years in the field of psychology, allowing patients to simply speak to a monitor rather than to a live therapist in the room.

Referred to in some quarters as tele-psych, Hensler noted that some research indicates patients are experiencing better outcomes using the technology as a bridge to the specialist, possibly because they are able to be more candid.

Dermatology is another specialty that has been shown to be well-suited to telemedicine, Hensler said.

Consultations with neurologists are also expected to increase through telemedicine at KMC, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

The other major benefit, Hensler said, is teleconferencing. Resident physicians and other medical professionals in training will be able to remotely "attend" lectures, medical conferences and workshops designed to enhance their knowledge and skills -- without having to leave the hospital or clinic.

And physicians at KMC can provide video consultation to remote medical facilities in the Kern River Valley and other locations separated by time and miles from metropolitan Bakersfield.

Various forms of telemedicine are also in use at San Joaquin Community Hospital, Bakersfield Memorial Hospital and other centers of medicine in Kern.

"I think it'll evolve over time," Hensler said of the technology and its uses.

We might eventually get to the point, he said, where we see our family doctors without physically seeing them at all.