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Digitization of patient records makes healthcare a prime cyber target

BY eSentire

August 11, 2017 | 4 MINS READ

Threat Intelligence

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Cyber-attackers are attracted to organizations that store high-value information and have a low tolerance for risk. That’s why the healthcare industry is becoming a prime target for cybercriminals, with ransomware being an especially appealing method of attack.

They know that a hospital, for example, relies on having instant access to patient data at all times, so in the event of an attack, they’d be more tempted to comply with ransomware demands to avoid losing important protected health information (PHI).

But, what’s the risk of giving into the temptation to pay the ransom? In this example, if the hospital pays to retrieve their files – because they don’t know what to do otherwise – that opens a door for cyber-attackers and shows them that hospitals are an easy prey. This may motivate them to increase the ransom amount for future attacks and/or target similar organizations.

Protected Health Information (PHI) is health information concerning past, present or future medical condition or treatment that is traceable to an individual patient by one or more of eighteen identifiers, including name, address, medical record number, social security number, individual website, digital or photographic likeness or any information that, in combination with other information, can lead to the identification of a patient.

Patient Information Needs Added Protection

As you’d imagine, with the digitization of patient healthcare records, it’s easier than ever for cyber-attackers to access personal, financial, historical data that can be used to commit fraud or identity theft.

What was traditionally kept as hard copies in files and folders behind physical lock and key has now made its way to cyberspace. This means that important and private patient information is only as protected as the organization’s network. This can be a tough fact for healthcare organizations to swallow – especially because the industry typically lags in digital transformation due to tight margins and limited IT resources.

Even though there’s an obvious need to protect the network, healthcare providers often struggle to find the resources to put preventative measures in place.

Cybercrime in Healthcare is Rising

According to eSentire Threat Intelligence, there’s been a 320% increase in cyber-attacks on healthcare organizations since 2016, with 16 million PHI records affected. While an attack can cause significant financial and reputational damage to a healthcare organization, what’s more concerning is the fact that human lives are at stake.

Without access to a patient’s medical records, healthcare professionals cannot effectively treat their patients. This can cause delays and disruptions that, in some cases, can lead to dire consequences.

This was the case when WannaCry hit Britain’s National Health Service, crippling its ability to properly treat patients. Thousands of operations and appointments had to be canceled as a result of the attack which, as it turned out, could have been prevented by installing the patch released by Microsoft two months earlier.

With a ransomware attack in particular – where data can be encrypted or compromised – there’s no way of knowing that, even if you do pay the ransom, patient files will be returned unchanged. How then, can a doctor or nurse, for example, confidently provide treatment knowing that the information they’re using could be inaccurate? Information such as medical history, past treatments, allergies to medicine must all be taken into account – so you can imagine the chaos that would occur when details like that start to disappear..

There’s been a 320% increase in cyber-attacks on healthcare organizations since 2016, with 16 million PHI records affected.

Understanding Your Regulatory Obligations

Healthcare organizations not only face the challenge of moving to digital, they also have to navigate some of the strictest industry regulations. In the US, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires that all organizations managing health records regularly review their administrative, technical and physical safeguards to ensure this sensitive information is protected. Failing to do so can result in significant reputational damage and financial loss as a result of fines.

This means that not only do they need to owe it to their patients to protect their confidential information at all times, they also need to be in a position to demonstrate to governing bodies that they have the necessary detection and prevention methods in place.

Is your organization compliant? Download the HIPAA Security Checklist to start mapping out your requirements today.

Don’t Be the Next Target

As the threat landscape continues to evolve, it’s important that your organization is prepared for an impending attack. If you’re not sure where to start, here are some questions to consider as you determine your new cybersecurity approach:


eSentire, Inc., the Authority in Managed Detection and Response (MDR), protects the critical data and applications of 2000+ organizations in 80+ countries, across 35 industries from known and unknown cyber threats by providing Exposure Management, Managed Detection and Response and Incident Response services designed to build an organization’s cyber resilience & prevent business disruption. Founded in 2001, eSentire protects the world’s most targeted organizations with 65% of its global base recognized as critical infrastructure, vital to economic health and stability. By combining open XDR platform technology, 24/7 threat hunting, and proven security operations leadership, eSentire's award-winning MDR services and team of experts help organizations anticipate, withstand and recover from cyberattacks. For more information, visit: www.esentire.com and follow @eSentire.

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