By Nadine Robin

As a health IT advocate, I’ve long declared 2014 as “The Year of the Patient,” so it’s with great pleasure that I’ll be leading a roundtable discussion on the topic at the Annual HIMSS Conference in Orlando, Fla., later this month.  During “Patient Engagement: It’s for Small Clinics, Too,” we’ll discuss how small and rural providers can encourage their patients to use patient portals and secure messaging.

But while I’m thrilled to play a role in the education of health care providers about patient engagement, I’m even more excited to help educate health care consumers – especially those who live in rural areas – about how health information technology (IT) can bridge the gap in their health care.

In Louisiana, more than 25 percent of our population lives in rural and underserved areas. While these residents may have access to wonderful primary care physicians, they may also live up to two hours away from the nearest medical center or specialty care provider. This presents a unique problem: how to coordinate quality care from a health care team that is geographically dispersed across the state.

Health IT is the solution to that problem.

Imagine, if you will, a patient who can electronically message his or her physician from a smart phone to clarify a health issue or concern – a patient who can log in to the patient portal and show his or her specialty care provider a complete list of current medications and test results. This patient’s information is available, no matter where he or she is located.

This, my friends, is an empowered patient, and health IT is the key to that empowerment.

As health care consumers – for really, we are all health care consumers - we need to ask the question, “How can I use this technology to improve my health care?” By understanding the value of health IT and the role it plays in the delivery of our health care, we can all be empowered patients – even those of us who live far away from our health care providers.

Yet, we must remember this: Our health care providers may have to meet certain patient engagement requirements for meaningful use, but in reality, ‘patient engagement’ is a two-way street. The dedicated doctors who care for us can only do so much – it is up to us, as patients, as health care consumers, to take the knowledge they impart and use it to make healthy, informed decisions about our care. It is up to us to become engaged in our care, and learning how to use health IT to our advantage is the first step.

The technology is in place. The care teams are in place. The possibilities are endless, and the excuses are obsolete. The time for us to become empowered, engaged health care consumers, regardless of where we live, is now.