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These Data Security Challenges Are Plaguing the Healthcare Industry

February 8, 2018
Min Read

Frequent cyberattacks are a grim reality of our tech-savvy society. The healthcare industry is particularly vulnerable to these attacks given the wealth of information found in medical records, including personal identifiers, insurance details, and prescription numbers.

Safeguarding electronic protected health information (ePHI) is more complex than ever with continuous advances in digital resources and cybercrime activity. In June 2017, insurance giant Anthem paid the largest healthcare data breach settlement fine in history—$115 million—for a 2015 cyberattack that affected nearly 80 million plan holders.

As a provider, how do you avoid falling victim to more of these massive attacks? To start, evaluate the evolving healthcare data security landscape and consider the obstacles in your way:

#1: Low Cybersecurity Awareness

Many of the cybersecurity problems health facilities face stem from a lack of awareness. They see data security as an issue that affects the IT department rather than the entire organization. Because of this mindset, they fail to build a culture of security where everyone understands and values secure data, equipment, and processes. And this leads to weak passwords and authentication practices, as well as participation in what’s known as shadow IT—where employees access sensitive patient data using unauthorized devices and apps.

Widespread lack of awareness makes the people working at a healthcare facility the weakest security link. To combat security flaws introduced by employees, make it a top priority to boost awareness at your organization through comprehensive training and adoption of strict authorization and authentication policies. It's also important to stay updated on HIPAA Security Rules to ensure your organization is correctly enforcing privacy over health information.

#2: Outdated Software Systems

The healthcare industry historically lags behind other industries when it comes to adopting technology. Hospitals and medical practices often use outdated operating systems, elementary backup systems, and consumer-grade routers. Additionally, they offer unsecured guest networks for patients and visitors.

Using modern software and equipment and habitualizing updates to systems and apps is key to protecting your facility from cybercrime. Outdated software exposes data to recent bugs and cyberattacks through antiquated features and missing protections.

#3: High Phishing Vulnerability

email phishing

Healthcare organizations are highly vulnerable to email phishing attacks thanks to email address availability and above-average email traffic. Healthcare email addresses tend to be less protected than email addresses in other industries. Additionally, healthcare professionals receive a large volume of emails as they collaborate with other providers and order drugs or equipment for treatment, so they are more likely to open a phishing email.

Healthcare professionals must exercise extreme caution when opening unsolicited email attachments and accessing the Internet on facility networks. To limit your practice’s phishing vulnerability, provide training sessions that offer tips for spotting phishing attacks and limiting Internet activity while logged into the organization’s systems.

#4: Lax Access Controls

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), access to ePHI should be limited to the “minimum necessary” for employees to do their jobs and care for patients. This is where many organizations fail. It’s all too common for health facilities to share large datasets across the organization simply because they lack the resources or time to manage access properly.

Considering the number of healthcare data breaches that result from internal staff errors, you can significantly reduce your organization’s risk by introducing data access controls. On top of limiting who has access to sensitive patient data, you should also keep detailed documentation of authorized access so appropriate action can be taken when an authorized employee leaves the organization.

#5: Prolific Mobile Devices

Laptops, tablets, and mobile medical devices are increasingly being used to treat patients and record data, but spreading sensitive information across all these devices exposes facilities to even greater security risks. In the first few weeks of 2018, the HHS received five healthcare data breach reports related to theft or loss of a laptop or other portable electronic device. And other reports indicate that a high percentage of mobile healthcare apps lack privacy policies. Additionally, mobile devices can be used to insecurely transfer sensitive data over public Wi-Fi networks.

Mobile devices require the same security measures used to protect desktop computers. In fact, some malicious malware is formatted to specifically target mobile devices. To safeguard your facility from the risks introduced by laptops and other portable electronic devices, require data encryption on all devices and adopt technology that allows you to remotely wipe a device if it is lost or stolen. Additionally, only allow certain information to be housed on approved devices and restrict use of personal laptops and smartphones on facility networks.

It’s time for healthcare organizations to move from a reactive cybersecurity approach to a proactive approach by addressing challenges head-on. If you’re looking for new ways to safeguard the sensitive data you collect, Formstack can help. Click below to learn more about our HIPAA compliant data solutions.


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