Healthcare cybersecurity: how to protect patient data

Protecting patient data cover

Cybersecurity for healthcare organizations involves protecting sensitive patient data from unauthorized access, use, and disclosure. It’s a strategic imperative for every healthcare business, but with the digitization of medical records, sharing sensitive information has become simple and, at the same time, much more exposed to cyber threats.

Cyberattacks often cause serious disruptions to patient care and lead to misdiagnosis and medical errors. Many studies have shown that ransomware attacks affected hospital mortality rates due to the lack of access to patient information. Also, as HIPAA Breach Notification Rule states, sensitive information violations can have serious financial consequences.

What other cybersecurity risks are healthcare organizations facing? And how can you mitigate them? Read on to discover the best practices for healthcare cybersecurity.

Over 93% of covered entities and business associates faced a breach in the last two years. According to IBM Data Breach Report, in 2022, the healthcare sector suffered the highest costs of data breaches. And although the number of breached records fell from 54.09 million in 2021 to 51 million in 2022, healthcare still remains one of the industries most affected by hackers. The commercial and public health sector is clearly under fire.

Protecting patient data quote

A new trend is a growing number of attacks through third-party vendors. Nearly 26 million records were exposed from business associates, and almost 25 million were on healthcare organizations.

Cyber attacks will continue to plague the US health sector, the Healthcare Cybersecurity Report for 2022 states. The criminal ecosystem keeps evolving and adjusting to new security measures. Threat actors will increasingly look for and exploit vulnerabilities in the systems. Also, third-party vendors are more at risk now.

Other long-term trends are seemingly unrelated geopolitical events directly impacting the healthcare industry. Since the beginning of the war, the Russian government has regularly leveraged wipers and DDoS attacks. And the same applies to Russia’s allies, such as China, North Korea, and Iran. 

Cybersecurity challenges for healthcare organizations

Let us examine why the healthcare industry is an attractive target for threat actors. There are 3 main reasons for that trend: 

  • Poor risk management

Healthcare organizations deal with connected medical devices (Internet of Medical Things), employees’ devices that don’t have adequate security measures, and several third parties that access Protected Health Information (PHI) and other critical assets. Ensuring adequate cybersecurity solutions that mitigate risk and address vulnerabilities in a legacy system is critical.

  • A huge value of PHI on the Dark Web

Stolen patient data can be used for malicious activities like identity theft or healthcare insurance fraud. A single medical record is valued at up to $250 on the black market, and this information is worth about 50 times more than credit card details on the Dark Web.  All this means that patient privacy is at risk of being violated.

Patient data types that need protection
  • Financial reasons 

It's a major security risk for the industry. Suffering a ransomware attack, for example, means paying a large amount to the attackers. 

Top 6 cyber threats for healthcare organizations

Threats for the healthcare industry come in many forms, from ransomware to theft of personal information. In 2022, the biggest security breaches in healthcare came from phishing and malware attacks.

top 6 cyber threats in healthcare
  • Phishing

Phishing targets individuals by tricking them into disclosing sensitive information, clicking a malicious link, or opening a malicious attachment. The most common telltale sign of a phishing email is that it conveys a sense of urgency or preys on fear or greed. Scammers can also use social media, text messages, and voice calls for phishing. 

  • Malware

It’s malicious software installed on a computer without a user’s consent. It can steal passwords or money or perform other malicious actions. Examples of malware include a Trojan horse, spyware, adware, or a virus.

  • Ransomware

Ransomware is a form of malware that encrypts files on a user’s device and locks them out until they pay the hacker money to release them. 

  • Theft of patient data

Stolen patient medical records may be sold on the dark web and used for insurance fraud or identity theft. Often, data recovery is not possible.

  • Insider threats

These risks can come from current or former staff members or contractors and happen intentionally or by negligence. For example, an employee may accidentally click a malicious link in a phishing email or skip security protocols to make their job easier. 

  • Hacked IoT devices

Hackers take advantage of vulnerabilities in devices connected by IoT, such as handheld devices, camera sensors, or CT scanners.

Top 6 cyber risks in healthcare

All the facts and statistics mentioned earlier mean one thing: cybersecurity in healthcare is a burning issue. Criminals can disrupt health businesses with malware, ransomware, or phishing. And damage the organization’s reputation and endanger patients’ lives. But apart from that, healthcare organizations are exposed to various cyber risks, such as unprotected access to PHI, human error, vulnerabilities of legacy systems, third-party vendors, and a lack of regular cyber risk audits. 

Risk 1: Unsecured access to PHI

According to new HIPAA encryption requirements, ensuring all sensitive patient data is unreadable, undecipherable, and unusable to any person or software program without access rights is mandatory. For your organization, it means implementing robust security controls that help store Protected Health Information (PHI) safely and protect it from unauthorized access.

Risk 2: Human error

82% of data breaches involved a human element, including social attacks, errors, and misuse.  according to Verizon’s 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report. Understanding how human error affects your organization can help you mitigate risks for the future. Almost one-third of such incidents involved a person abusing their use of internal resources. For example, a doctor shares access to their work-issued device with children, who click on a malicious link and download malware. 

Risk 3: Vulnerabilities of legacy systems 

Outdated technology opens doors for cybercriminals. Legacy devices and operating systems are vulnerable because they can’t update properly. This means inadequate security control and weaknesses in the system can’t be patched. 

However, some healthcare organizations delay transitioning to up-to-date security solutions because of tight budgets or complacency. They choose to fix a problem only after a system failure or a cyber attack. Deploying technology that encrypts data, monitors authorized users, and blocks unauthorized user access can help minimize cyber risks. 

Risk 4: Third-party vendors

The number of business associates that handle sensitive data has grown with the volume of electronic medical records. According to an analysis by Fortified Health Security, third-party vendors accounted for 16% of data breaches in the first half of 2022. 

In 2022, the largest third-party vendor data breach, which affected almost 4 million individuals, happened through a ransomware attack at Eye Care Leaders. The breach impacted at least 39 covered entities, as well. 

Risk 5: Compliance 

Healthcare organizations also face regulatory challenges. Protecting patient privacy according to the latest HIPAA and GDPR rules can be complex. Besides following compliance guidelines, your organization should implement the best cyber security practices. Failure to keep patient records private may result in substantial penalties and harm your reputation. 

Risk 6: The absence of risk assessments

Every healthcare organization should conduct a regular risk assessment to identify vulnerabilities and risks to the confidentiality and integrity of PHI.  The evaluation should determine your organization’s capabilities for detecting, preventing, and responding to cyberattacks. It’s also crucial to know where your sensitive information is, what threats your organization faces, and your system's vulnerabilities and security holes. And what your action plan in case of an attack is. 

Best practices for healthcare cybersecurity challenges 

This year’s IBM Data Breach Report demonstrates no system is impenetrable. But healthcare cybersecurity is all about basic security measures that stop criminals and make them look for an easier target. What are the best practices for minimizing cyber risks? Here is a list of the strategies worth adopting: 

  • Deploy verified cybersecurity software

Install cybersecurity software on every connected device and secure your network. 

  • Update your software regularly

Prompt, regular updates will address patches and vulnerabilities.

  • Train your staff on cybersecurity

Your employees should be aware of cyber threats and how to detect them. 

  • Strengthen your system access controls 

Restrict access to your most sensitive data and monitor who accesses it.

  • Conduct regular risk assessments 

Identify weaknesses in your system and mitigate risks. Determine where your sensitive information is and protect access to it.

  • Ensure your business associates have strict security policies 

Some business associates have lax policies that can create problems for the healthcare organization they cooperate with. Don’t let stolen vendor credentials or data will compromise your organization. 

Cybersecurity solutions for healthcare organizations

Securing your organization from cyber threats can be overwhelming. Protecting your valuable data and critical equipment is complicated but doesn’t have to be complex. That’s why we have prepared a guide on security solutions tailored to the health industry.  

  • Network security

The key to combating any external threats is network visibility and responsive protection. A solution that quickly isolates risks will prevent your network from being exposed. Setting permissions and policies for secure users and apps across multiple devices is also good. This way, you will ensure that only authorized staff will access your confidential data. 

  • Application security 

The best way to secure access to your applications is to verify and authenticate every user, device, and connection. This Zero-trust approach enforces mandatory checks at every step and minimizes security gaps. It also enables your staff to work remotely and on multiple devices. 

  • Endpoint security

If your devices are left unsecured, they can be a gateway for breaches, and an infected endpoint will affect your organization’s functioning ability. A comprehensive solution for endpoint protection uses data encryption and enforces unified security policies on all servers, networks, and endpoints. It also monitors 24/7 access to your resources, alerting you if there is suspicious activity. 

  • Data security

Encrypting sensitive healthcare data can help conceal it from outsiders. MFA will add strength to authentication processes. Permission sets enable managing data access, meaning only authorized users can access it.  Everyone else will be blocked by default until granted the necessary privileges. Before you apply access controls, you need to classify your data accordion to its value and vulnerability. 

  • Cloud data security

As healthcare organizations move their assets and data to the cloud, cloud services need robust protection. Cloud providers and businesses should share responsibilities to ensure data security, but this doesn’t mean you will always have a full view of your infrastructure. The provider may move data without you even knowing it. That's why having a clear division of responsibilities is crucial. Also, you should encrypt everything in the cloud and set strict access permissions. You add IP allowlists to only connect specific IP ranges to your network. 

How NordLayer can help 

You can protect access to your sensitive data and transition your organization towards the SSE framework by implementing our solutions for Zero Trust Network Access.

NordLayer also provides an adaptive network security solution that easily integrates with your existing infrastructure and provides secure access to sensitive resources.

Contact our sales team and discover how to protect your patient data from cyber threats.

Disclaimer: This article has been prepared for general informational purposes and is not legal advice. We hope that you will find the information informative and helpful. However, you should use the information in this article at your own risk and consider seeking advice from a professional counsel licensed in your state or country. The materials presented on this site may not reflect the most current legal developments or the law of the jurisdiction in which you reside. This article may be changed, improved, or updated without notice.

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