When cyberattacks take out business systems, organizations suffer from direct and indirect financial losses. When healthcare systems go down, it’s a matter of life and death. Healthcare organizations were already a frequent target of cybercriminals, and the pandemic has made this situation worse. Infosecurity Magazine reports that healthcare data breaches will increase by 3x in 2021, at a time when so many healthcare providers are burnt out and exhausted from battling the pandemic. The magazine also found that 75 percent of healthcare organizations didn’t feel adequately prepared to deal with cyberattacks. Protecting healthcare data from its most significant threats is no easy task. 

Table of Contents

  1. Most Common Healthcare Data Threats
  2. Cybersecurity Challenges in Healthcare Environments
  3. COVID-19 Related Attacks on Healthcare Data
  4. Preparing for Healthcare Data Threats
  5. Remove or Mask Sensitive Data from Your Healthcare Analytics Solution


Most Common Healthcare Data Threats

The healthcare industry is one of the top targeted by ransomware. Check Point’s research found that daily ransomware attacks increased by 50 percent in Q3 2020 compared to Q1 2020 and Q2 2020 and affected four percent of healthcare organizations globally.

Since many healthcare organizations need immediate access to their data to save lives, they frequently pay ransoms to regain access. While the FBI recommends that no one pays these ransoms as it encourages the cybercriminal’s behavior, choosing that option is far harder when someone might die from that decision.

Phishing is a common way for cybercriminals to gain access to healthcare systems. Many medical staff members have limited cyber-awareness and/or cybersecurity training on top of dealing with the stress of the pandemic. They’re often scheduled for longer than normal hours due to demand, along with their coworkers getting sick with COVID-19. Human error is inevitable in these kinds of situations and can lead to data breaches and ransoms.

Current Cybersecurity Challenges in Healthcare Environments

The healthcare industry has a combination of unique factors that make it a favorable environment for cyberattacks. Since the data is so valuable and healthcare organizations have a high likelihood of paying ransom demands, it’s a profitable venture for hackers. This sensitive information can fuel identity theft, account takeovers, and sophisticated attacks.

Protecting healthcare systems from data breaches and other threats becomes complicated for several reasons:

  • Decreasing budgets: Many healthcare organizations have cut back drastically on elective procedures, and fewer patients are seeking routine care due to concerns about the pandemic. The financial impact of this situation is felt throughout the organization, including in the IT security budgets. 
  • Lack of cybersecurity personnel: Many IT security professionals choose other industries, so the cybersecurity talent shortage is even worse in healthcare than elsewhere. Technical staff that work on-site could be in environments with heavy concentrations of COVID-19 positive patients, which is another deterrent to recruiting talent. The budget cuts also reduce the salary and benefits available to highly competitive specialists.
  • Outdated systems and devices: Operating systems, computers, applications, and devices may be past their end-of-life data, but still in-use at healthcare organizations. Highly specialized medical applications may require older operating systems or lack security features present on modern systems.
  • Lack of cybersecurity awareness: Medical professionals may not have role-appropriate knowledge of cybersecurity, which makes them more likely to click on phishing links and fall victim to other manipulation techniques.
  • Poor visibility into healthcare systems: Data siloes and complex, disjointed infrastructures could make it difficult to fully understand the security risks present in the business network.
  • Limited security measures on connected devices:  Connected medical devices and the Internet of Things empowers medical providers with more data and advanced capabilities, but they’re not always optimized for security.
  • Lack of security policies or consistency for telehealth environments: Many healthcare providers switched to telemedicine rapidly when the pandemic hit, without implementing policies, procedures, and standardized environments.

COVID-19 Related Attacks on Healthcare Data

In addition to the normal healthcare data risks, many cybercriminals have turned their attention to COVID-19 vaccine data. For example, BioNtech reports that the European Medicines Agency was breached, and regulatory submission documents for Pfizer’s vaccine were accessed. Research facilities, manufacturing plants, and others involved in the research, development, and supply chain of COVID-19 vaccines may have an elevated threat level.


Preparing for Healthcare Data Threats

2021 may be a rough year for protecting healthcare data. Using a systemic cybersecurity approach to deal with potential threats, ensuring that healthcare data remains available, and mitigating the risk of data breaches involving personal health information and other sensitive information will be critical.

  • Empower all staff with cybersecurity awareness: Many data breaches start due to clicking a phishing link. Don’t assume that everyone in the organization has basic cybersecurity literacy. Put tools and training programs in place to keep everyone up-to-date on what common attack attempts look like, how to respond in the situation, and how to report the attempts to the appropriate IT security team member.
  • Protect all endpoints in your infrastructure: Many healthcare organizations have to account for remote computers, tablets, smartphones, and other devices now that telemedicine is commonplace. Use security platforms that have appropriate protections and management capabilities for your infrastructure, rather than ones that focus primarily on the perimeter of a hospital or clinic. Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) software is one option for improving in this area.
  • Strictly control access to data: Reduce the number of users and systems that have access to healthcare data. Each user or role should only access the information needed for their position, and anyone no longer with the healthcare organization should have their account removed or disabled.
  • Create a cybersecurity talent pipeline: You can partner with local high schools, community colleges, technical institutes, and similar organizations to encourage new IT talent to choose healthcare for their industry.
  • Leverage systems that have lower capital and operational expenses: Healthcare organizations are making widespread budget cuts due to shortfalls, so you may be working with limited resources for procurement, recruitment, and operations. Look for ways to make the most of your available resources. For example, if you implement an Advanced Threat Detection solution, you can automate many low-level IT security processes so your team can focus on more complex attacks.
  • Perform an IT security risk assessment: Understand where your security gaps are and prioritize your time, budget, and resources on addressing them first.

Remove or Mask Sensitive Data from Your Healthcare Analytics Solutions with Integrate.io

You can protect your healthcare data while still being able to use it for valuable insights for data-driven decision making. An Extract, Transform, Load tool such as Integrate.io can remove personally identifiable information from your datasets or mask this data before it moves to your data warehouse or lake. Give it a try with our 14-day demo.