A Complete Guide to Healthcare Cybersecurity

Posted on by Jerry Vasquez
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What is Cybersecurity in Healthcare?

Cybersecurity in Healthcare consists of layered technology and processes that work to secure healthcare data. Stringent technology requirements address the data while it's being processed, stored, or transmitted, and documented processes and training address the security of healthcare data when people are involved. These two layers comprise all cybersecurity approach best practices and can include compliance requirements like HIPAA and SOC compliance.

Importance of Cybersecurity in Healthcare

Our big world has gotten smaller, closer, and easier to access. From your phone, you can order food, buy a plane ticket, or set up a virtual meeting with your doctor. And though this easy means of transmitting sensitive patient and public healthcare data gives healthcare professionals the means to help their patients quickly and efficiently, it also introduces an easier means for hackers to compromise systems. 

According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, data breaches are rising, with the worst affecting millions of people.”

This trend makes healthcare cybersecurity an absolute necessity for every organization to increase security around their systems and data.

Types of Healthcare Data

Knowing what constitutes sensitive data is crucial for solidifying cybersecurity protection strategies. Patient data and healthcare information can include: 

  • Account numbers.
  • Contact information.
  • Addresses.
  • Diagnoses. 
  • Social security numbers.
  • Payment information.
  • Health insurance details.

The sensitive nature of patient data transmitted between healthcare facilities sets the tone of urgency for cybersecurity. 

It also prompts several compliance requirements like HIPAA for all healthcare organizations that gather, keep, use, store, share, or manipulate any patient data.

Key Healthcare Systems to Protect from Cyber Attack

Key Healthcare Systems to Protect from Cyber Attack

An online presence has become vital to businesses, and healthcare is no exception. Allowing ease of access encourages new attack vectors and opens doors for potential breaches

Each system is still necessary for business and customer service requirements and needs constant attention to keep secure.

Self-Service Portals

Self-service portals give clients convenient, 24-hour access to their healthcare data, including records, history, schedules, and personal information. Most of these systems are also publicly accessible and protected only by a username and password.

Email Alerts

Email alerts are a ubiquitous and easy way to address important dates and reminders. Once viewed, however, emails are easily spoofed, falsified, and used for phishing.

Digital Prescription Ordering/Record Transmissions

Digital record transmissions are the backbone of quick treatment. And, so long as they’re appropriately encrypted, they can be safe. If encryption is lax, however, that data is visible to anyone with access to the network.

Digital and Physical Record Storage

Medical records are necessary for every field of medicine. They contain histories, diagnoses, and treatments and are used to ensure proper treatment in every area. A breach of this data, whether physically or digitally, can be catastrophic. All records must be kept safe and secure.

Need help securing your entire infrastructure? Download the Complete Security Infrastructure Checklist for SMBs.

Top Threats to Healthcare Cybersecurity

Recognizing threats to your business is the first step toward mitigating the risk. According to Security Scorecard, these are the three biggest threats:

Phishing and Spear Phishing

Phishing scams are falsified emails designed to gain user credentials or other personal data and have been a threat standard since email’s inception. 

And healthcare cybersecurity is no exception. 

Understanding only a tiny percentage will be successful, a cyber attacker relies on a large number of recipients to realize a decent return. 

But a new, targeted approach called spear phishing takes a different direction.

Spear phishing attacks rely on targeting specific organizations or even individuals to increase the probability of success. For example, attackers will often copy company logos, company headers, or spoof well-used email addresses (like HR or Support) to increase the believability of the email and thereby increase the chance of a bite. 

Once attackers gain access to the internal portal or network, probes start in earnest, looking for new vectors to gain access, like unpatched software.

Unpatched Legacy Software/OS

The viability of modern software and operations systems lies in their constant updates. Updates for additional functions and bug fixes increase these systems' value and longevity, but the security patches are increasingly important to healthcare cybersecurity.

Once a piece of software hits the market, it’s susceptible to compromise in some way. All developers work to maintain best practices, but hackers are tireless. As a result, attackers will target these vectors preferring popular pieces of software to increase their chance of a successful breach. 

If a hacker can compromise a popular piece of software, they have thousands of potential systems to which they can gain access. At that point, deploying malicious software is as easy as logging in — no need to re-hack entry to the system. 

The most susceptible pieces of software are referred to as legacy, End-of-Life, or abandoned if it’s open-source. These applications and systems no longer receive patches. 

If someone discovers a new attack vector, it’s only a matter of time before someone exploits it, and there’s no patch to address the issue.

Ransomware

One of the most popular means of exploitation is the use of ransomware. Ransomware accesses data on a system, encrypting it with an unbreakable encryption algorithm. 

Once encrypted, all data on the hard drive is irreversibly encoded and locked. Only a decryption code, known only to the attacker, can decrypt the data. 

Attackers will then contact their victims demanding payment for the decryption key, ultimately holding their entire system ransom.

Even more insidious, modern ransomware targets all accessible devices connected to the target, ultimately encrypting the target, any networked supplementary systems, and any available backups.

A study of 2020 ransomware attacks detailed 92 ransomware attacks affecting 600 separate entities. These attacks affected 18 million patient records, potentially causing $21 billion in damages, showing these attacks will likely continue their upward trend.

Top Ways to Protect Systems

Top Ways to Protect Healthcare Systems

Luckily, it’s not all doom and gloom! Organizations can follow some simple steps to protect their systems and businesses from the top threats and maintain solid healthcare cybersecurity. 

Implement Strong Password Requirements

It seems like a no-brainer, but weak passwords still cause around 81 percent of all data breaches. Requiring strong passwords will immediately thwart most basic attempts to gain access to your systems.

Many modern systems and access panels have the ability to force strong passwords but remembering these rules is just as effective. 

All passwords should:

  • Be at least 10 characters long, but longer is better.
  • Use a mix of upper and lower case letters.
  • Use at least one number.
  • Use at least one special character.
  • Not utilize dictionary words.
  • Be changed at least twice a year.
  • Be unique. Avoid reusing passwords.

Enabling two-factor authentication (2FA) is also a great way to preempt potential access. An abundance of 2FA applications can be installed on almost any smartphone, making the integration easier than adding extraneous utilities. 

Start Required Security Training

Most successful phishing attempts happen via either unnoticed or untrained interaction. However, simple security awareness training like investigating links or recognizing strange wording can arm staff with the ability to notice phishing attempts, even good ones. 

Further, train your staff to speak up if they see something suspicious. Thwarting an attempt and keeping it to yourself only leaves others exposed. When someone notices a phishing attempt, being vigilant can differentiate a breach and extra spam.

Maintain Regular Software Updates

Updates are difficult. Maintaining critical infrastructure protection and updating essential software is bothersome. It often requires reboots and downtime and introduces the risk of an update going awry, causing further frustrations. 

But not doing so only opens the door for potential risk. As bitter as it may be, an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure. 

Bite the bullet. Update your systems.

Employ Ransomware Protection/Off-Network Backups

Several options exist to protect from ransomware, like Liquid Web’s Acronis Cyber Backups. This solution employs ransomware scanning and off-network backups, an incredibly important measure. 

If a system is a target of ransomware and the only backups are on that encrypted hard drive, they’re as good as gone. Keeping off-network backups allows you to get back to business should the unspeakable happen.

Compliance Requirements

All of the tips listed above and other, more granular requirements are part of several compliance requirements for storing and using patient information.

HIPAA

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is a federal healthcare sector and healthcare cybersecurity requirement designed to safeguard client data and is notoriously tricky to navigate. 

Thankfully, Liquid Web’s data center employs HIPAA Compliant Hosting. We maintain all physical, core network, core power, and major access control processes natively via our own documented processes and procedures. Further, we offer several HIPAA compliance packages to help clients who need HIPAA compliance for their own business requirements.

HITECH

Like HIPAA, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act is federal legislation. Unlike HIPAA, however, the HITECH Act encourages organizations to switch to digital data instead of using physical documentation.

The language of HIPAA is intentionally vague in several places except for the Enforcement Rule, the article detailing penalties for data breaches. As such, several organizations avoided the penalties specific to the digital requirements by maintaining antiquated physical records, limiting the potential gains from switching to digital. 

HITECH clarified language in HIPAA, helping adopters understand the impacts, and offered cash incentives to organizations who could maintain properly-documented uses of Electronic Health Records (EHR). Liquid Web is third-party verified to meet HIPAA/HITECH requirements.

HITRUST

Often confused as a supplementary/optional offering to HIPAA, the Health Information Trust Alliance (HITRUST) is not legislation. Instead, it is an organization that understands how difficult achieving and maintaining HIPAA compliance can be. 

To that end, HITRUST developed the HITRUST Common Security Framework (CSF), a healthcare sector cybersecurity framework implementation guide that organizes the standards and requirements imposed by HIPAA into a rational and understandable approach. This helps steer an organization on the path to getting and keeping its HIPAA certification. 

The paid, hands-on guidelines have helped countless healthcare professionals stay in business as HIPAA compliance is required for their online presence.

Future of Healthcare Cybersecurity

The future of healthcare is interwoven with technology. The usability, access, and efficiency technology brought to healthcare has irreversibly changed the direction of the industry. Unfortunately, it has also opened the door to cyber threats that change just as quickly as the business. From compliance to risk, healthcare cybersecurity is now a necessary conversation.

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About the Author

Jerry Vasquez

A self-professed pirate captain with two decades of leadership experience, Jerry has led teams from 60+ cooks and chefs to 16 networking engineers. He brings those years of experience to his current role as Product Manager at Liquid Web, focusing on networking and security products. When not working or sleeping, Jerry can usually be found eating and having a good conversation with good people.

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