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Healthcare Data Security: Challenges & Solutions

by Chris Brook on Wednesday June 14, 2023

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The sanctity of patient/doctor confidentiality in the digital age requires strict security measures to safeguard healthcare data. This requires balancing data protection and privacy with a low-friction, privileged access environment that prevents unauthorized access to patient records.

What Is Healthcare Data Security?

Healthcare data security is the process and framework that ensures electronic health records (EHR) are stored securely to prevent unauthorized access to patient information. Apart from the data, healthcare data security also extends to the devices, computers, endpoints, and networks used by healthcare providers and third-party vendors. 

The Risk Factors in Healthcare Data Security

Generally, EHR face the same risks as intellectual property and sensitive corporate data. However, privacy issues are more resonant with patient data, coupled with the confidentiality of its personally identifiable information (PII).

In addition to medical data, patient records often contain financial details like bank accounts and credit card information. This is worth a lot of money in the black markets of the dark web, making it a prime target for criminals who subsequently use it for identity theft fraud.

Protected health information (PHI) is as varied as DNA samples, fingerprint scans, digital files, and database records. The multifaceted nature of healthcare data, ranging from structured and unstructured variety, significantly adds to the challenge of protecting it. 

As a result of the massive amount of lucrative patient data it stores, the healthcare industry is one of the biggest targets for cyberattacks. 

Unfortunately, most hospitals and healthcare providers face an asymmetric battlefield regarding healthcare data security. Unlike large enterprises, most healthcare providers lack the resources and expertise to equip themselves with cutting-edge cybersecurity to thwart advanced persistent threats. 

This lack of resources and expertise results in a failure to continuously keep patient data secure. Below are some of the risk factors that compromise healthcare data security:

The Use of Legacy Systems

Hospitals are notorious for using legacy systems. By their very definition, legacy systems are antiquated. This risk posed by their outdated nature is compounded by the fact that technological change moves with rapid speed and velocity. 

A legacy system comes in the form of old apps, network protocols, and operating systems. This obsolete technology is often riddled with security flaws that offer hackers abundant security loopholes to exploit, and yet because they are often discontinued, they lack technical or customer support to address those security flaws.

Inadequate Hardened Security of Medical Devices

Medical devices like X-rays and MRIs are also a potent vectors of attack for hackers. Although they provide lifesaving treatment and store patient data, medical devices typically lack the hardened security perimeter of network devices such as computers and laptops. 

To compound the problem, like most IoT devices, their endpoints are increasingly connected to the internet, providing an easy entry point for hackers to gain access.

Moreover, once these devices and their installed software reach their end-of-life, vendors stop providing the necessary support and updates to keep them secure. 

Unsecured or Poor Wireless Networks

With the prevalence of electronic records and the digitalization of healthcare operations, hospitals and care providers need network access to function. However, without diligently securing these wireless networks, patient data can be compromised through packet sniffing and man-in-the-middle attacks. 

In addition, patients and medical staff routinely need to access EHR remotely, opening up more opportunities for endpoint attacks. 

Improper Patch Management and Security Protocols

The proliferation of medical and computing devices in hospitals makes keeping track of regular software patches and upgrades challenging. Risk factors posed by insufficient security protocols are poor password management–especially on systems containing PHI–and using default passwords and factory-settings configurations on both network and medical equipment. 

Healthcare Data Security Standards

The importance of healthcare has compelled authorities around the world to establish strict security standards in storing and handling PHI. 

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is applicable in the United States and mandates the protection of certain health information. Maintaining HIPAA compliance ensures that organizations handle patient data carefully to avoid significant fines, penalties, and even lawsuits.

The Health Information Trust Alliance (HITRUST) is globally recognized as a risk management framework. Among other certifications, it offers various levels of adaptive assessment to quantify risks.  

ISO 27001 / ISO 27799 have emerged as international standards for protecting confidential medical information. ISO 27001 defines best practices and is adopted by organizations in healthcare, financial services, and government dealing with sensitive data.

The Most Common Healthcare Data Security Challenges

Healthcare is a complex ecosystem, with an astronomical number of devices and medical equipment used daily. This makes it difficult to keep on track of the security needs of individual units. While it's highly sensitive, healthcare data also needs to be securely shared with relevant stakeholders to serve the patient's best interest. 

These factors create many challenges to effectively secure healthcare data. Below are a few of the challenges that cybersecurity experts need to contend with in the healthcare domain. 

Data Breaches

Some data breaches result from malicious intent, while other data leakages occur inadvertently from improper handling of EHR due to negligence or carelessness. 

Here are some of the most prevalent cyber threats and vulnerabilities that result in healthcare data breaches: 

  • Ransomware attacks
  • Electronic health records vulnerabilities
  • Insider threats from disgruntled employees 
  • Unintentional disclosure of patient information
  • Lost, stolen, or misplaced devices
  • Identity fraud
  • Email phishing scams
  • DDoS attacks

Best Practices For Safeguarding Healthcare Data?

To be effective, healthcare data security solutions need to incorporate the following best practices:
 

  • Encrypting patient data and portable devices: Sensitive health data should never be stored or transmitted in clear text. Apps used in healthcare data messaging must be encrypted.
  • Regularly patching software: Constantly update software and operating systems to minimize vulnerabilities. 
  • Educating and training staff: Employees working in healthcare organizations need to be on high alert, with regular training on handling patient data and regulatory violations, particularly those enshrined in HIPAA.
  • Incorporating a data breach response plan: This allows an organization to proactively handle security breaches, including mitigation techniques and disaster recovery strategies.
  • Implementing zero-trust: Adopting a zero-trust architecture, along with the principle of least privileges, to restrict unwarranted access to applications and prevent sensitive data exposure.
  • Robust identity access management (IAM): IAM should combine multi-factor authentication (MFA), paired with account privileges that are tightly coupled with the right user permission.
  • Vulnerability management: This includes implementing regular risk assessments and penetration testing. Also, thoroughly vet vendors to minimize supply-chain vulnerabilities.

Why you should choose Digital Guardian's Secure Collaboration for your Healthcare Data Security Needs

From infrastructure to automation, Fortra’s robust end-to-end data protection solutions provide heightened points of fortification to meet today’s healthcare security standards. Our interlocking solutions protect sensitive data while keeping users productive, increasing employee security awareness, and increasing security confidence.

Our secure collaboration solution builds trust by enabling patients to collaborate safely with healthcare providers, along with machine learning-powered identifiers for sensitive PII in email and files. 

Check out our complete guide to protecting sensitive healthcare data here and chat with one of our experts for more information.

Tags:  Compliance Secure Collaboration

Chris Brook

Chris Brook

Chris Brook is the editor of Digital Guardian’s Data Insider blog. He is a cybersecurity writer with nearly 15 years of experience reporting and writing about information security, attending infosec conferences like Black Hat and RSA, and interviewing hackers and security researchers. Prior to joining Digital Guardian–acquired by Fortra in 2021–he helped launch Threatpost, an independent news site that was a leading source of information about IT and business security for hundreds of thousands of professionals worldwide.

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