What is Healthcare Cybersecurity: Definition and Brief History

Cybersecurity is a vital component of any healthcare organization's operations. Healthcare data is considered one of the — if not the — most valuable commodities sold on the information black market. As a result, healthcare facilities are a major target for cybercriminals.

In this blog, we'll examine what "healthcare cybersecurity" means and review the unique challenges involved in keeping healthcare data secure. We'll also take a look at the evolving landscape of cybersecurity for healthcare and what steps healthcare providers should take to better protect themselves from cybercrime.

What is Healthcare Cybersecurity?

These days, consumers generally have a grasp of the importance of protecting their sensitive data, such as credit card information and Social Security numbers. But in the healthcare sector, cybersecurity requires a more specialized, focused strategy to preserve the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of highly sensitive medical information.

The most valuable healthcare digital information is patient data, often referred to as protected health information (PHI). Experian reports that full medical records can command up to $1,000 because of what they typically contain: Social Security number, date of birth, credit card details, address, emails, and more personal information. A comprehensive healthcare cybersecurity program should protect data stored across all information technology systems used in an organization, such as the following:

  • Electronic health record (EHR) systems
  • Email
  • Medical devices
  • Wearables and other patient monitoring devices
  • Phone systems
  • Other software (including legacy systems)
  • Printers and fax machines
  • Instant messaging tools and other communication applications

Healthcare cybersecurity also helps protect other sensitive data, including an organization's financial records, employee files, and vendor contracts.

What Makes Cybersecurity for Healthcare Different?

Cybersecurity is critical for every healthcare provider. Failing to protect your organization from cybercriminals can result in data loss or theft, serious financial losses, extended downtime, and significant damage to your company's reputation. That's not all: The consequences of a data breach can even be a matter of life and death. For instance, in 2020, a patient died when she could not be admitted to a hospital because of an operational shutdown triggered by a ransomware attack.

In addition to the high stakes involved, cybersecurity for healthcare is uniquely challenging for a few reasons. Among them:

  • Healthcare organizations have particularly complex technology systems. Healthcare providers usually work with a wide array of information technology, including EHR systems, e-prescribing software, radiology information systems, physician order entry platforms, and clinical decision support systems. In addition, these systems may also need to connect with other technologies, such as smart medical devices and surgical equipment, and patient monitoring devices, such as wearables and mobile apps. In this complex technical environment, it can be challenging to make sure that all systems are current, protected by cybersecurity technology, and compliant with HIPAA guidelines.
  • Healthcare data is tremendously valuable. As we mentioned, research shows that healthcare data fetches some of the highest price on the dark web. In addition, medical data is of vital importance to the healthcare providers that gather and store it, given the crucial role of accurate medical information when it comes to patient care and wellness. As a result, healthcare organizations are ideal targets for cybercriminals who are leveraging increasingly powerful encryption tools to motivate provider victims to pay a large ransom to recover their data.

What are the Major Threats to Healthcare Cybersecurity?

Healthcare organizations are a frequent target for cybercrime. Currently, the biggest cybersecurity risks to healthcare practices in the U.S. include the following:

1. Email phishing

In an email phishing attack, employees are sent an email that appears to be from a legitimate source. The email will then trick healthcare staff into sharing confidential information, such as system login credentials, or clicking on a link that installs malware into the computer.

How to protect your healthcare organization

Prevention is the best medicine. In this case, make sure your staff are familiar with phishing attacks. Ensure you have software that detects malicious content in emails or emails that have no sender or domain. Finally, work with a healthcare IT security consulting firm to arrange for a security awareness phishing campaign that simulates a phishing attack and tracks how staff respond.

2. Ransomware attacks

Ransomware software essentially holds the user's data hostage. The user, which can be a single individual up to an entire organization, is prevented from accessing their data until a ransom is paid to the cybercriminals, usually in a form of cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin.

How to protect your healthcare organization

Follow appropriate guidelines when patching and updating software and carefully control which computers can access patient data. You should also deploy and keep current anti-malware tools.

3. Loss or theft of hardware

This is one of the more common causes of healthcare data breaches. In some cases, laptops and other devices with access to medical data are stolen or lost and end up in the hands of cybercriminals. At other times, the data breach occurs when computers that still contain sensitive information are not properly disposed.

How to protect your healthcare organization

Create and maintain an extensive inventory of all hardware and other equipment. Make sure all sensitive information is scrubbed from hardware before it is disposed.

4. Attacks against medical devices

A particularly serious cybersecurity risk, these attacks allow hackers who have accessed the care provider's computer network to take control of smart medical devices, such as heart monitors, and turn them all off until a ransom is paid.

How to protect your healthcare organization

Assess and update the security controls on all networked devices. Implement pre-procurement security requirements before purchasing devices. It's also important to note that the first step in an attack of this kind is to introduce ransomware into the network, often via a phishing attack. That's why it's critical that you also focus on restricting access to your computer network through anti-phishing protocols and training.

Brief History of Cybersecurity for Healthcare

Historically, the healthcare industry has been slow to adopt new technologies, with long purchasing cycles and strict regulations making it all too easy for healthcare providers to keep using legacy systems even when they are no longer secure.

But the healthcare cybersecurity landscape has rapidly changed in recent years. The Cybersecurity Act of 2015 (CSA) was established with the specific aim of improving cybersecurity in the healthcare industry after a series of significant data breaches. Since then, cybersecurity has been increasingly recognized as critical, both in terms of the day-to-day functioning of healthcare organizations and as a core component of quality patient care. What's more, the growing costs of patient data breaches have made healthcare cybersecurity a worthwhile and essential investment.

Meanwhile, maintaining healthcare cybersecurity has become ever more challenging, as cyberattacks have increased dramatically, both in their sophistication and frequency. Most recently, hacker conglomerates such as the Conti group have taken advantage of the ongoing global pandemic to target overwhelmed healthcare organizations.

These attacks also point to the increasing complexity of combatting cybercrime. For instance, some of the most prolific cybercriminals now offer an “affiliate program” of a sort, where other hackers can use their highly effective ransomware in exchange for a cut of the ransom profit.

A Proactive Approach to Healthcare Cybersecurity

Today's healthcare providers are facing an unprecedented challenge if they want to keep their patient and other sensitive data secure. However, healthcare cybersecurity need not be overly complex. Securing your organization will essentially come down to four key steps: encrypting all data, backing it up safely, ensuring that you follow HIPAA regulations, and consistently monitoring your cybersecurity.

To create a strong cybersecurity program for your healthcare organization, you would be well advised to partner with a healthcare IT specialist like Medicus IT. We can help you to identify and address vulnerabilities, maintain HIPAA compliance, and protect your sensitive patient information from cyberattacks. To know more, please reach out to us.

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