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Healthcare's HUGE Cybersecurity Problem

There are few industries where cybersecurity is more important than the healthcare industry. Healthcare is one of the world’s largest industries and millions of patients' lives are at stake every day. But despite this importance, the healthcare industry has a wide range of cybersecurity challenges that many providers are failing to adequately address. 

Healthcare organizations are uniquely vulnerable to cybersecurity attacks. Attacks resulting in system downtime don’t just slow down business – they put people’s lives at risk. Healthcare IT environments are attractive targets for attackers: they’re typically formed from a mesh of different systems, many of which are outdated and contain troves of highly-valuable data. 

Despite these vulnerabilities, many healthcare organizations fail to take sufficient measures to strengthen their cybersecurity infrastructure. However, there is much more nuance to this issue in the healthcare industry than in many other industries. Patient care is the number one priority, and any improvements to the cybersecurity infrastructure must not come at the cost of making it easy for doctors and nurses to do their jobs.

But the impact of cybersecurity attacks on medical providers is undeniable and it’s incumbent that healthcare providers find a way to navigate major cybersecurity challenges. In the first five months of 2022, the number of healthcare breaches recorded by the U.S. government nearly doubled compared to the same period in 2021. And these attacks can be large-scale: in 2017, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) fell victim to the WanaCry attack, resulting in disruptions to more than 70,000 systems including crucial devices like MRI scanners and blood storage refrigerators. 

Building a robust cybersecurity infrastructure without compromising on patient care is challenging, but with the right approach, it’s absolutely possible. In this guide, we’ll share some of the most prevalent cybersecurity risks and explore the steps you can take to harden your healthcare organization’s infrastructure against these threats. 

4 Critical Healthcare Cybersecurity Risks

There are many cybersecurity risks that healthcare organizations face, but the most prominent include:

  1. Securing patient data
  2. Managing aging legacy systems
  3. Ransomware attacks
  4. Phishing attacks

Let’s take a closer look at how each of these risks presents itself in healthcare environments and explore some steps you can take to safeguard your patients, staff, and IT systems. 

1. Securing Patient Data

Protecting patient data is of utmost importance to healthcare providers. Recent years have seen patient data transition from being stored on legacy systems toward cloud-hosted systems. That’s been a positive for patient care, enabling better communication between medical staff, but can put highly confidential patient data at increased risk. To remain compliant with HIPAA, healthcare providers must take steps to secure sensitive patient data.

These security risks can come both from internal and external forces. A 2020 Verizon study found that 48% of data breaches resulted from insiders misusing the system while 51% originated from external attackers. The average cost of a data breach in the U.S. healthcare sector is $9.2 million, underscoring the importance of securing patient data.

Internal data breaches occur when staff members access patient data that’s unrelated to their patients. Most of the time, internal data breaches result from unintentional human errors, but occasionally, malicious intent drives thefts of patient data. It’s possible to mitigate internal data breaches with robust cybersecurity policies and security awareness training. 

External data breaches occur when outside actors breach a healthcare organization’s network and steal patient data. This can result in medical identity theft but also disrupts patient care, with attackers demanding healthcare providers pay a ransom to release sensitive patient data. Defending your network against these attacks requires a commitment to improving your cybersecurity infrastructure and investing in threat intelligence tools. 

2. Managing Aging Legacy Systems

The digital infrastructure of healthcare providers typically consists of a complex network of different systems and devices. From a cybersecurity standpoint, this creates a broad attack surface that is extremely challenging to protect. This complexity is only compounded by the presence of aging legacy systems: technologies that the healthcare provider might have used for years.

While many legacy systems are gradually being replaced, the rate of change is slow, and IT teams often meet resistance from medical staff. Employees are resistant to change, and besides, upgrading to new systems is expensive. Phasing out legacy systems often involves the purchase of new equipment and extensive staff retraining programs, plus it’s not always easy to integrate new systems with existing network infrastructure. 

But when it comes to cybersecurity, legacy systems represent a major point of vulnerability. They lack modern security features, don’t integrate with cybersecurity technologies, and are vulnerable to exploitation. Where possible, IT leaders should make every effort to upgrade existing legacy systems to more secure technologies. This process might be met with resistance but is a necessary step to manage risk and safeguard patients.

3. Ransomware Attacks

Because they hold such high-value data, healthcare organizations are a common target for ransomware attackers. Recent years have seen ransomware attacks become increasingly common, and in 2021, two-thirds of healthcare organizations reported being targeted by a ransomware attack, up from just one-third the previous year. 

A ransomware attack occurs when an external attacker gains access to internal systems using malware and then denies users access to these systems unless they pay a ransom. For healthcare providers, this is a nightmare scenario. Medical staff may be unable to access Electronic Health Records or use key pieces of equipment until administrators pay the ransom. 

Often, organizations do end up paying this ransom, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Even when the ransom is paid, the victim is unlikely to retrieve all of their data, and recovering from the attack is a long, expensive process. Investing in cyber insurance helps to offset the financial costs of ransomware attacks. But to mitigate the operational impact, healthcare organizations must assess what went wrong and put in place strategies to mitigate weaknesses in their network security. 

4. Phishing Attacks

Phishing attacks have a major impact on healthcare organizations. They are commonly used to access secure patient data, deliver ransomware, or both. In fact, phishing attacks are the most common cybersecurity threat that healthcare organizations provide, representing 45% of healthcare industry cybersecurity incidents in 2021

Phishing attacks are costly and without the right security awareness training, it can be all too easy for employees to fall prey to them. Phishing emails are a form of social engineering designed to trick employees into disclosing sensitive information including account details and passwords. They’re also frequently used to deploy ransomware. 

As phishing attacks are so common, it’s important to take steps to better defend your organization against them. Many cybersecurity awareness training programs feature phishing education modules and also offer simulated phishing emails that you can use to understand how your employees react to phishing attacks. You can also add additional layers of security such as multi-factor authentication that better protect access to key systems. 

How You Can Protect Your Healthcare Organization

There are a number of steps that IT leaders can take to more effectively defend their patients, staff, and entire organization against the possibility of cybersecurity attacks. These include:

  • Cybersecurity Employee Training: many training programs can be delivered digitally, empowering employees to take training modules in their own time. At Tech Heads, our security awareness training is delivered virtually in partnership with industry-leader KnowBe4, helping turn employees from a vulnerability into your first line of defense. 
  • Managed Security Service Provider: another option is to outsource your cybersecurity needs to a Managed Security Service Provider (MSSP), a vendor who is responsible for managing your cybersecurity infrastructure. This is a great fit for smalxl and medium-sized businesses that may lack the resources and sophistication to manage their own security infrastructure. 
  • Vulnerability Analysis: it’s difficult to know where to allocate your resources if you don’t know where your points of vulnerability are. A vulnerability assessment identifies and prioritizes gaps within your system so you can spend your time fixing the issues that matter the most.
  • Cybersecurity Policies: creating and enforcing a robust set of cybersecurity policies is a vital step in ensuring your employees minimize cybersecurity risk and respond correctly in the case of security breaches.

Partner With Tech Heads to Protect Your Healthcare Organization

If you’re committed to improving the cybersecurity infrastructure of your healthcare organization, the team at Tech Heads is here to help. With over 25 years of experience building and maintaining security infrastructure, our expert professionals bring a proven, data-driven approach to security that helps you minimize risk. 

Contact us today to learn more.

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