We’ve always seen the digital landscape as an entity alternate from our own lives. What happens online is what happens online, and what goes on in the real world is separate. But with the increasing adoption of technology around the globe, it’s becoming increasingly clear that these two worlds are merging more and more every day. Nowhere is this truer than in the healthcare industry, where organizations must ensure the safety of their patients’ information and data. Cybersecurity is now a critical element to any successful healthcare practice, and those who don’t take the necessary steps to protect themselves are at serious risk of losing both their patients’ trust and a lot of money.
In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at the current digital risks faced in the healthcare industry, their implications, as well as what steps can be taken to mitigate them.
The Current State of Affairs
Cyberattacks on the healthcare industry are unfortunately on the rise. While the sector’s ongoing digitization has certainly helped it evolve with modern times, new technologies are also opening the door to advanced risks providers simply aren’t ready for. The trend seen over the past few years is staggering. Data shows that 45 million people were affected by healthcare data breaches in 2021, 11 million more than the 34 million impacted the year before. This is even more worrying when you consider how fast things have climbed in less than five years; 2021’s total is more than three times the number of people affected by breaches in 2018.
Hospitals are facing an onslaught of attacks from cybercriminals looking to exploit patient data. Never-ending changes in technology have made consistently circumventing security measures easy for hackers – costing healthcare providers billions in turn. Statistics indicate that the sector’s average percentage increase of data breaches was three times higher than the global average and nearly twice as costly year-over-year in 2021. Business disruption, revenue losses from system downtime, reputation losses, and diminished goodwill cost providers roughly $10 million dollars per incident, each taking an average of 212 days to identify and another 75 to contain. Compromised credentials have been the most common factor behind these crises to date, although phishing, cloud misconfiguration, and business email compromise have also had a hand in attacks.
Healthcare’s current risk outlook has only been made worse by emerging global conflicts and political tensions. The war in Ukraine has specifically spurred malicious activity as Russian actors look to target Kyiv and its Western allies.
Back in April of last year, not long after the United States imposed sanctions against Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a statement warning Americans of possible retaliations on domestic digital infrastructure. The security warning directly mentioned threats to healthcare and referenced several prominent hacking groups that had already levied such attacks. The American Hospital Association (AHA) also sounded the alarm, telling providers to prepare for the potential disruption of critical systems, supply chains, and electronic medical records.
Months of fighting, further sanctions, and escalations later, we’re where we’re at today – an unknown, adverse landscape in which cybercrime runs rampant and the healthcare industry risks have never been greater.
The Consequences of Cyber Attacks on Healthcare
Cyberattacks are bad news whenever and wherever they occur, but are particularly damaging to the healthcare industry. As a foundational part of modern society, hospitals, clinics, and doctor’s offices have a direct relationship with public well-being. Their work literally saves lives and is relied upon to fight our most existential threats. COVID-19 is just one example; it’s hard to imagine where the world would be at this point if not for modern medicine or the breakthroughs it pioneers every day.
For all it does to keep our world running, the healthcare industry is an essential sector that can’t be lived without. Impairing it in any way has the potential to create a ripple effect that impacts society at large. This is a consequence we’ve seen time and time again as cybercrime continues to soar on an international level.
A 2021 study conducted by The Ponemon Institute found that 89% of healthcare groups it surveyed had experienced a cyberattack within the previous year. Those among them dealt with an average of 43 incidents each, the most expensive costing roughly $4.4 million.
But the impacts extend far beyond financials – the providers highlighted in the study saw a direct decline in quality of care as a result of cyber attacks. From cloud compromises and ransomware to supply chain and business email compromises, 57% indicated that these incidents resulted in poor patient outcomes, nearly half in increased complications, and 23% in increased patient mortality rates.
2021 research from the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) also warns of an immediate connection between digital crime and the collapse of healthcare systems as a whole. It outlined that IT network failure can impact multiple facets of a hospital’s functioning, from access to electronic health records and diagnostic technology to ambulance diversion, ICU bed utilization, and strain management. In some cases, it may mean the difference between life and death in an emergency. This is a serious issue many experts have begun speaking out over; as healthcare is one of the most critical aspects of public infrastructure, attacks on it can easily take a human toll.
What Cyber Threats Do Healthcare Providers Face?
Saying that healthcare providers are affected by cybercrime simply doesn’t expose the true breadth of risks the industry is currently facing. Hospitals, clinics, and all organizations holding valuable patient data need to keep up with a growing sea of digital threats that can each upend their operations differently. Below is a breakdown of the most common along with the strategies they involve.
Phishing is a type of social engineering attack conducted over email, phone, and text. It involves sending out deceptive messages that appear to be from reputable entities like banks or service providers and contain malicious links or attachments. When clicked, these either download malware onto the user’s computer or redirect them to a fraudulent website where they are asked for personal information.
Phishing has consistently ranked as the number one cause of healthcare data breaches among analysts. They say that the strategy is behind as much as 60% of the sector’s attacks, mainly due to its ability to easily mislead victims and infiltrate their systems undetected. Anyone – from a doctor or nurse to an administrative employee – can fall for a phishing scam, making it a popular option among cybercriminals looking for quick access.
Ransomware attacks are a form of cybercrime that involve targeting victims’ computers with malicious software (malware). Once implemented, these programs lock users out of their files and deny access until a ransom is paid.
The healthcare sector is especially vulnerable to this type of attack, with more than one in three providers falling victim in 2020. It’s an especially damaging form of attack as it can not only compromise data but also disrupt operations and prevent access to important healthcare services.
Data breaches are a type of digital attack that occurs when an unauthorized user gains access to sensitive data or systems. This can be done through a variety of methods, such as exploiting weak passwords or unknown vulnerabilities in IT infrastructure. Once the attacker is inside, they can steal, delete, or modify any information stored on the network.
Data breaches are one of the biggest risks healthcare providers face, as they can lead to the exposure of important patient data – including financial and medical records. This type of information is highly valuable to cybercriminals and can be used for a variety of purposes, such as insurance fraud or identity theft. Healthcare is disproportionately impacted by data breaches, with an average daily number of incidents of 1.76 in 2020.
What Can Be Done to Protect Healthcare?
It’s no secret that healthcare is one of our most important assets as a society. Yet, by all indications, it’s also among the most threatened. As technology evolves, it’s only inevitable that risks will continue to emerge. The current state of affairs we’re facing proves that this is an issue of ill-preparedness, something that can be mitigated with the right solutions in place.
While every healthcare provider has unique risks, there are some general steps any organization can take to lessen its vulnerability to today’s cyber threats. The following section will list the seven most effective and how practitioners can implement them.
1. Develop a Comprehensive Security Policy
Having a detailed security policy in place is vital to any organization’s defense against digital threats. It outlines the steps and procedures people must follow for the protection of data, systems, and resources. This document should be updated regularly to reflect any changes in technology or threats.
2. Perform Regular Risk Assessments
Risk assessments are a precautionary, proactive measure, yet just as important to cybersecurity as any other practice included on this list. They involve identifying and analyzing the potential threats a healthcare organization may face, as well as developing strategies to mitigate them. Risk assessments should be conducted regularly, as threats and vulnerabilities can change over time.
3. Train Staff on Cybersecurity Practices
One of the most important steps healthcare providers can take to improve their security is training staff on cybersecurity practices. Allowing employees to become familiar with the basics of cyber-hygiene can go a long way in reducing the risks of an attack. Training should include information on identifying phishing attempts, verifying sender identities, and following safe online practices.
4. Update IT Infrastructure
Hospitals and clinics have long relied on outdated systems and technologies to get their work done. It’s often due to circumstance – organizations are so busy combatting overlapping crises like COVID-19 and drug epidemics that they hardly have the time to take a break and breathe, let alone upgrade their IT.
But as secondary as it may seem, updating IT infrastructure is a critical step that every healthcare facility must take to protect itself. This includes making sure all systems are up-to-date and patched, installing the latest virus protection software, and performing regular backups of important data.
5. Adopt Encryption Technology
Encryption technology is an essential tool when it comes to protecting data. It scrambles information so that only the intended user can read it, making it difficult for outsiders to access. The healthcare industry should employ encryption technology wherever applicable, including emails, messages, and documents stored on the cloud. Doing so can add an extra layer of protection against cyber attacks and ultimately make it harder for criminals to exploit patient information.
6. Invest in Cybersecurity Insurance
Healthcare providers must also consider investing in cybersecurity insurance. This type of policy offers financial protection against any losses incurred as a result of a data breach. It’s not just a smart option for healthcare organizations – it has become increasingly necessary as cybercriminals become more sophisticated and the risks of attack grow.
7. Review Relationships With Third-Party Partners
It’s not enough to implement strong cybersecurity measures within healthcare organizations themselves – the third-party groups they work with can be an equally vulnerable place for criminals to exploit.
It’s in every healthcare group’s best interest to thoroughly review the companies it has relationships with and ensure they’re just as protected from cybercrime. Existing guidelines and assessments like SOC 2 + HITRUST are available to provide healthcare executives with confidence that partners will safeguard data.
While it is – and will likely always be – impossible to completely insulate organizations from cyberattacks, the points outlined in this article are a great start. In many ways, they’ll become essential to businesses that want to survive in this increasingly adverse digital landscape. By taking the time to invest in the right solutions like Tokenizer+, Redactor+, and Secrets+, healthcare providers can ensure that their systems and staff are properly equipped to weather a modern future. For more information on mitigating risk and preventing cyberattacks on your sensitive data contact TeraDact today.