Sensitive corporate data is always a prime target for data breaches. The healthcare industry is no exception, and the compliance obligations a healthcare firm must fulfill to protect that data are formidable. 

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires healthcare organizations to implement robust security controls to safeguard health information from unauthorized access. This mandate is not optional.

Any organization that falls under HIPAA compliance guidelines is legally (and ethically) required to protect the personal privacy of patients from the loss, modification, or misuse of data. Ignoring those duties can bring legal, reputational, and financial penalties. 

Healthcare organizations are also obligated to provide clear notices to individuals about what data the organizations are collecting, why they’re collecting it, how they plan to use it, and what other entities will have access to the data. 

These requirements sometimes coincide with other data privacy laws like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which requires explicit consent from any patients or customers who live in the EU.

Are healthcare information systems really a target for security breaches?

Medical records may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you consider valuable data that a cybercriminal might want to steal, but such records most certainly are. The rate of healthcare data breaches increased by 55 percent from 2019 to 2020, with nearly 600 occurrences reported in 2020.

To remedy the situation, healthcare organizations are obligated to limit access to sensitive data, implement data security measures such as encryption and firewalls, and train employees on information security practices for data handling, vendor risk assessment, and overall information technology best practices. 

Incidentally, healthcare firms are also expected to spend $125 billion on cybersecurity from 2020 to 2025.

Cybersecurity Attacks in the Healthcare Industry

Cybercriminals use everything from malware, to ransomware, to weak passwords and other cyber threats to gain access to confidential personal data. Such information can include names, birth dates, credit card numbers, phone numbers, employment histories, and more. 

In addition to patient medical records, providers also typically have financial information stored on patients. And due to privacy regulations, cybercriminals may feel that simply threatening to expose a data breach, and holding patient data for ransom, will be enough to force healthcare businesses to give the attackers what they want: money, or some other ransom.

What are the consequences of poor healthcare security?

When organizations ignore or neglect their compliance duties, the consequences can be severe.

In 2019, data breaches cost healthcare organizations an estimated $4 billion in damages, with an average of $423 per compromised patient record. This amount doesn’t include the costs associated with HIPAA fines or any lost productivity suffered during or after the data breach. 

And not all loss caused by a data breach can be measured in dollars and cents. Information stolen during security incidents, such as Social Security numbers, addresses, and phone numbers, can be used to open new loan and credit accounts, commit identity theft, or blackmail patients or organizations. 

Additionally, a malware attack could cause medical devices to shut down or malfunction, which could result in the loss of human life. Examples include pacemakers, insulin pumps, and more.

How can the healthcare industry improve on cybersecurity?

To respond to this increasing threat, healthcare organizations need to take several steps. 

1.    Invest in cybersecurity training for team members

Yes, invest in robust security controls and to encrypt and protect sensitive customer information — but those controls are only as effective as your staff is at implementing and maintaining those controls over time. 

It’s equally (or perhaps even more) important that your staff be trained and understand their role in keeping your organization’s private information safe, and that they know how to adhere to security standards.

2.    Keep your information systems and tools updated 

Many organizations don’t understand the threat that unpatched software creates. Cybercriminals know how to seek out such vulnerabilities and then exploit them to gain access to your IT environment. So it’s important to create a routine cadence for updating every application running in your IT ecosystem.

3.    Replace legacy systems with newer, more secure technologies

Legacy systems weren’t built with today’s threat landscape in mind, so strive to replace those systems with more modern, secure technologies. 

It’s true that change can be difficult, particularly for a large organization like a hospital system. But when weighed against the potential penalties for using a poorly secured system, the effort of investing in better technology becomes much more compelling. 

Modern cybersecurity technologies provide several out-of-the-box benefits, like SSL encryption and authentication protocols that you can use to get a jump start on implementing your HIPAA compliance controls.

4. Implement access controls

Not all threats are external. Some cybercriminals disguise themselves as trusted employees. Other threats include trustworthy, yet uneducated employees. Both present a threat to your organization. 

By implementing access controls, you can designate access and authority to use, move, or change sensitive data to a select group of employees that require access to do their job. Furthermore, most identity management and access control tools will allow you to revoke access automatically for terminated employees, preventing a disgruntled ex-employee from exposing your organization. 

5.    Enforce password requirements

To assure that a hacker can’t access your systems through weak passwords, employees must be educated on best practices like:

  • Using complex passwords
  • Not including personal data in a password
  • Not using personal passwords for professional systems
  • Changing passwords regularly
  • Using 2FA (two-factor authentication), like biometric scanning or an application on an encrypted personal device, for an added layer of security

6.    Conduct regular risk assessments

Just as technological innovation expands and grows, so do cyber threats and compliance requirements. A risk assessment you did a year ago may very well be outdated today. 

So your risk management strategy should include routine risk assessments, to assure that you are still able to mitigate existing threats properly and are prepared for emerging threats.

7.    Implement multiple security layers

Redundancy in cybersecurity is key. There are no guarantees that even the best firewall software will go un-hacked forever. That’s why it’s best to incorporate multiple layers of security to ensure that if one fails, another will stand in its place.

8.    Incorporate data recovery and backups into your strategy

It only takes one cybersecurity incident, like a DDoS attack, to cripple your system entirely and cause the loss of all your data. That’s why it’s important to run routine backups of your data, systems, and servers, and store them in a secure, remote location, to enable recovery in the event of an incident. 

Looking to the Future of Cybersecurity & Healthcare

The cybersecurity risk landscape is constantly evolving. Some of the emerging threats the healthcare industry faces include:

  • bringing telehealth into compliance with expanding HIPAA regulations
  • adjusting to changing clinical trials
  • encouraging digital relationships while ensuring patient privacy stays protected

To add to the challenge of implementing modern cybersecurity best practices, healthcare companies must also stay abreast of changing regulations. 

And with COVID-19 forcing telemedicine to grow faster than regulators’ ability to adopt new regulations for it, businesses are expected to do their own due diligence to assure they don’t face legal penalties later on down the road. 

Reciprocity Has HIPAA-Compliant Security Solutions

HIPAA requirements run more than 115 pages. Ensuring that you’re compliant with each applicable rule and scaling your cybersecurity protocols to multiple locations can be extremely time-consuming and overwhelming.

With ZenGRC, you can assure your organization does its due diligence to protect sensitive information through risk analysis and mitigation, so your organization can meet its compliance requirements across a variety of frameworks whether they be for HIPAA, PCI, NIST, HITECH, or otherwise.

ZenGRC’s functionality can help you to implement self-audits for security risks if you’re new to HIPAA compliance or just need an extra hand getting started. And its easy-to-use dashboard provides an integrated view of your HIPAA-regulated data and compliance requirements, showing where your gaps are and how to fill them.

ZenGRC stays up to date in real-time with changing compliance regulations so you don’t have to. With Zen, you always know where you stand and can fix gaps in your compliance as soon as they occur. 

Worry-free HIPAA compliance is the Zen way! Learn how ZenGRC can help you achieve compliant software by booking a demo today.