Healthcare Cybersecurity: The Challenges of Protecting Patient Data

    Digital technology has dramatically transformed the healthcare industry, and in some ways this transformation is the stuff of sci-fi. Look at the Human Genome Project. This project successfully mapped out human DNA a decade ago. Today, individuals can conduct affordable genetic testing at home.

    Similarly, it wasn’t too long ago that health records were kept on physical shelves in thick folders. But today they’re in the form of Electronic Health Records (EHRs), and patients can easily access them via online platforms or Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

    While this easy accessibility and abundance of data benefits patients, it’s even more useful for cybercriminals. It has been recently reported that nearly 90% of healthcare institutions faced a data breach in the past two years. According to Statista, the average cost of a healthcare data breach is over $9 million.

    Also read: Top Cybersecurity Companies & Service Providers

    Why is Healthcare the No. 1 Target of Cyber Criminals?

    Today, healthcare information is even more valuable than financial data. Therefore, the exposure of an individual’s healthcare data is a critical privacy risk and has far-reaching personal consequences.

    In case of a healthcare data breach, the patient or an individual might experience embarrassment due to health conditions or personal issues, and the breached data might be used for illegal activities like blackmailing, identity theft, and fraud.

    Unfortunately, because of a number of cybersecurity weaknesses, breaching healthcare data can be a relatively simple job for hackers.

    6 Cybersecurity Challenges of the Healthcare Industry

    As new technology and compliance regulations arrive on the scene, every industry faces new cybersecurity threats to personal data. Unfortunately for healthcare, there are many reasons why it’s become the Number One target of cybercriminals. Here we look into the six significant healthcare cybersecurity challenges and solutions in today’s digital age.


    Recent research shows that phishing is the most common cybercrime in the healthcare industry. In a typical phishing attack, users are tricked into disclosing passwords or other relevant personal information. Emails are the most common platform for this cybercrime. For example, a hacker sends an email to a healthcare employee stating that their password is no longer valid and sends a link to reset their password. If the employee is not knowledgeable about phishing or lacks proper training, he may follow the link and reset his password – this is all a hacker needs to put a healthcare institution at risk.

    Also read: Best Cybersecurity Training & Courses for Employees

    The IoT challenge

    The healthcare industry has quickly adopted IoT devices and conducted massive IoT innovations over the past decade. But unfortunately, cybersecurity innovations lag behind IoT innovations and adoption. Although positives have been seen from IoT adoption in the healthcare industry, cybersecurity issues are rising.

    Hackers take advantage of IoT providers’ rush to roll out devices without considering the cybersecurity implications. Therefore, with numerous IoT devices circulating in the market and health organizations, hackers easily exploit their vulnerabilities.

    Also read: Best IoT Device Management Platforms & Software

    Distributed denial-of-service

    Hackers devise distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks to flood a business organizations’ network with internet traffic to the point where the business ceases to operate normally. DDoS attacks are usually carried out along with malware or ransomware attacks (which will be discussed later). In sophisticated DDoS attacks, hackers fill a network with massive volumes of data from millions of hacked computers.

    Therefore, DDoS attacks are hazardous to healthcare providers who need access to a faster network to provide efficient patient care, including email communication, filling prescriptions, and accessing and retrieving health records.

    See also: 5 Best Practices for Mitigating DDoS Attacks

    Ransomware attacks

    A ransomware attack is a sort of malware attack devised by a cybercriminal to infect systems, devices, and files to gain a ransom from the victim. Most common ransomware attacks come as requests to click on a malicious link, view a malware ad (malvertising), or respond to phishing emails.

    Ransomware slows down or ceases business operations until a ransom has been paid to the hacker. Untrained employees may fall into these traps, and it can cost a health organization lots of time and money. A health organization could have used this time and money to invest in new technology or improve patient care standards.

    Also read: How to Prevent & Respond to Ransomware

    Data breaches

    Protected Health Information (PHI) contains personal data, including Social Security numbers, contact information, test results, diagnoses, and prescriptions. There is indeed an active black market for PHI.

    So hackers are interested in PHI because an individual’s health and diagnosis history cannot be simply deleted or hidden like credit card numbers. Once hackers obtain this information, they can use it to get loans, medication, insurance claims, or set up credit lines—everything under fake identities.

    The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) states that healthcare organizations must practice adequate data security measures in collecting and distributing PHI. But in reality, most organizations fail to update protocols, implement security measures, and adequately staff their IT departments.

    Unauthorized disclosure

    The unauthorized access or disclosure of PHI is equally dangerous and damaging as a ransomware attack. PHI exposure results from the intentional and accidental negligence of providers and employees.

    The South Florida Community Care Network’s case is a real-world example of unauthorized disclosure. In September 2021, the organization announced that a former employee had been emailing internal documents containing PHI to their personal email inbox for several months.

    While some of these instances arise from malicious intent, in most cases, these incidents stem from negligence or a lack of proper cybersecurity measures.

    Tackling Healthcare Cybersecurity Challenges

    Knowledge is power in the digital Information Age. Proper knowledge also plays a significant role in tackling cybersecurity challenges. Let’s look at some of the ways a healthcare organization can improve its cybersecurity efforts to ensure proper management and protection of sensitive data.

    Create a cybersecurity culture

    It pays well to build a cybersecurity culture into the structure of a health organization. Activities to create this culture include continuous ongoing cybersecurity training and educational programs for each employee that emphasize their role in protecting PHI.

    The protection of devices

    Since healthcare organizations are undergoing digital transformation and becoming more tech-savvy, their dependence on smartphones, tablets, and other IoT devices has risen. Therefore, these organizations must follow cybersecurity measures like data encryption to ensure data security.

    Install antivirus application

    Antivirus software enhances network and data security; however, these applications should be constantly updated. Constant updating is essential for a health organization’s protection against ever-changing cyber threats.

    A zero-trust policy is the best policy

    A health organization shouldn’t make the PHI readily available to anyone. Instead, always exercise control over the network access to PHI under a zero-trust policy. This policy grants access to PHI only to those who view and use it within the limits of their daily work schedules.

    See the Top Zero Trust Security Solutions & Software

    Maintain strong passwords

    This may sound silly but creating and regularly updating strong passwords plays a vital role in an organization’s cybersecurity. A typical strong password is 12 to 14 characters long and should be a combination of numbers, symbols, and upper case and lower-case letters. Not only that, employees must understand the relevance of setting up strong passwords and the difference between strong and weak passwords.

    Strong Cybersecurity in Healthcare Demands Expertise

    In precisely the same way a health organization cleans up a human health system and helps build strong immunity, several third-party healthcare cybersecurity solutions can help your health organization in various ways. Although you can implement cybersecurity measures, it would be challenging to maintain strong cybersecurity without external yet additional support in a constantly evolving cyber threat landscape.

    In addition, an external healthcare solution also improves your organization’s cyber health as it continuously monitors third-party vendor and IoT platforms, safeguards PHI, and remains in compliance with the evolving regulatory standards of the healthcare industry.

    See the Best Managed Security Service Providers (MSSPs)

    Kashyap Vyas
    Kashyap Vyas
    Kashyap Vyas is a writer with 9+ years of experience writing about SaaS, cloud communications, data analytics, IT security, and STEM topics. In addition to IT Business Edge, he's been a contributor to publications including Interesting Engineering, Machine Design, Design World, and several other peer-reviewed journals. Kashyap is also a digital marketing enthusiast and runs his own small consulting agency.

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