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Top Tips to Improve Healthcare Data Security

Healthcare data security

AI, digital transformation, “smart” devices — all this new technology might suggest that healthcare data security is stronger than ever. It has to be, right? Well…

Incidents like the recent cyberattack on Fortra, a file-transfer software provider, have left numerous healthcare organizations grappling with the consequences of compromised data security. How can you keep your customers’ and patients’ data safe when you need to share it with so many external products and services?

As more healthcare providers turn to Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions to streamline their operations, they inadvertently put themselves in the crosshairs of external vulnerabilities. No matter how robust a company’s internal data security measures may be, the moment they entrust their data to a third party, they are at the mercy of that provider’s security protocols.

And the consequences of a data breach in the healthcare sector can be devastating. There are financial costs and reputational damage, but the loss of patient trust is the wound that may never fully heal. Healthcare companies have a moral and legal obligation to safeguard the sensitive information entrusted to them, yet many find themselves in a precarious position.

They have to strike a delicate balance between embracing SaaS solutions’ efficiency and innovation and ensuring the absolute security of their data.

“How can we protect our patient data when we’re not holding the keys?”

The healthcare industry is no stranger to data breaches. It has become one of the most targeted sectors by cybercriminals due to the valuable nature of the information it holds. Patient data is a goldmine for hackers looking to steal identities, commit fraud, or simply sell what they’ve stolen. Medical records fetch significantly higher prices among buyers and sellers on the dark web compared to any other kind of data, including credit card data. You can cancel a credit card, but you can’t “cancel” a social security number.

In 2023, the healthcare sector experienced a staggering number of data breaches, with more than 540 organizations and 112 million individuals impacted. This marks a significant increase from the previous year, highlighting the growing threat landscape and the urgent need for improved cybersecurity measures.

Some of the most notable healthcare data breaches of 2023 include:

  • HCA Healthcare: 11.27 million individuals impacted
  • Perry Johnson & Associates: 8.95 million individuals impacted
  • Managed Care of North America: 8.86 million individuals impacted
  • Welltok: 8.49 million individuals impacted
  • PharMerica Corporation: 5.82 million individuals impacted
  • Colorado Department of Health Care Policy & Financing: 4.09 million individuals impacted
  • Regal Medical Group: 3.39 million individuals impacted
  • CareSource: 3.18 million individuals impacted
  • Cerebral: 3.18 million individuals impacted
  • NationsBenefits Holdings: 3.04 million individuals impacted

What are the digital risks facing healthcare organizations?

Vendor Vulnerabilities

One of the most significant challenges for healthcare companies is the increasing reliance on third-party services and cloud-based solutions. While these technologies can improve efficiency and streamline operations, they also introduce new attack surfaces for threat actors.

Breaches like those experienced by Welltok and NationsBenefits, which stemmed from vulnerabilities in third-party software, underscore the importance of thorough vendor risk management and the need for healthcare organizations to hold their partners to the same high data security standards.

Improper Data Sharing Practices

Improper data sharing practices, such as when the online mental healthcare platform Cerebral improperly implemented tracking pixels, can also lead to significant data breaches. In Cerebral’s case, it adopted its tracking pixel software without fully vetting it (or, in other words, without fully understanding how it actually worked). Subsequently, user health data was exposed to third parties like Meta and Google.

Sharing sensitive patient information with third-party advertisers without proper HIPAA-required assurances exposes healthcare organizations to legal and reputational risks.

Inadequate Employee Training

Another major vulnerability in healthcare data protection is inadequate employee training.

Employees are often the first line of defense against cyber threats, but many lack the proper knowledge and skills to identify and prevent them. This can lead to unintentional insider threats, where employees unknowingly click on malicious links or fall victim to phishing scams, giving hackers easy access to sensitive data.

These so-called “social engineering” hacks are the most common kinds of cyberattacks. They don’t involve using high-tech algorithms or cracking passcodes — just old-fashioned confidence tricks.

Strategies for enhancing data security

So, if the risks are so widespread and serious, what can healthcare organizations do to enhance their data security? Here are a few key strategies that will help your organization gain an edge over increasingly sophisticated and persistent data dangers:

Conduct Regular Risk Assessments

Healthcare organizations should conduct regular risk assessments to identify system and process vulnerabilities. This includes evaluating third-party vendors’ security, assessing current security measures’ effectiveness, and identifying areas for improvement.

By proactively identifying and addressing weaknesses in data security practices, healthcare companies can reduce the likelihood of a successful cyberattack. Revisit these risk assessments at least annually or when changes occur in the organization’s technology environment. Remember: It’s better to find those weaknesses yourself before a hacker does. It’s easy to put off these sorts of assessments when you think things are working as they should, but the difference between thinking and knowing can be the difference between a compromised system and a secure one.

Implement Robust Access Controls

Nobody loves having to go through multi-factor authentication methods and strict access controls. But it’ll be much worse when a data breach happens due to lax security protocols. Strong access controls, such as secure passwords and multi-factor authentication, can greatly reduce the risk of unauthorized access to sensitive patient data. In fact, many successful social engineering hacks leverage a lack of multi-factor authentication and team “silos.”

If you have an employee leave, revoke their access immediately to prevent any potential data breaches. A little inconvenience now can save a lot of headaches later.

Varonis’ “The Great SaaS Data Exposure” report shared multiple case studies on the risks posed by poorly managed access controls: “At one global real estate company, a dozen contractors were given access to the company’s Salesforce instance. Months later, after their project ended, the ex-contractors could still log in and access all of the company’s records. Two former contractors were super admins — and one had recent login activity.”

The Great SaaS Data Exposure

Encrypt Sensitive Data

Encrypting sensitive data, both at rest and in transit, is a critical safeguard against data breaches. By using strong encryption algorithms and properly managing encryption keys, healthcare organizations can protect patient information from unauthorized access, even if a breach occurs.

Encryption is particularly important when sharing data with third-party vendors or transmitting information over public networks. It’s like putting a lock on your data – even if someone gets their hands on it, they won’t be able to read it without the key.

If encryption seems like a no-brainer, you might be surprised. A 2021 study found that 83 percent of organizations don’t encrypt at least half of the sensitive data they’re storing in their cloud.

Develop and Test Incident Response Plans

Despite all precautions taken, a data breach is always possible. Hence, having a clearly defined and routinely tested incident response plan in position is crucial.

The plan should outline roles and responsibilities, communication protocols, and steps for containing and mitigating the breach. Regular tabletop exercises and simulations can help ensure that the plan is effective and that employees are prepared to respond to a real-world incident.

Think of it like a fire drill for your data — you hope you never need it, but you’ll be glad you practiced if you do.

Companies like Blackbaud, SolarWinds, and the previously mentioned Forta, have all faced lawsuits in the aftermath of cyberattacks explicitly because of how they responded (or failed to respond) to them.

Vet and Monitor Third-Party Vendors

As recent breaches have shown, third-party vendors can introduce significant risks to healthcare organizations. It’s crucial to thoroughly vet vendors before engaging their services, ensuring that they have robust security measures and comply with relevant regulations such as HIPAA.

Healthcare organizations should continuously monitor their vendors’ security posture and hold them accountable for maintaining high data protection standards. Remember, your data is only as secure as the weakest link in your supply chain.

Leverage Secure Software Architectures

When selecting software solutions, healthcare organizations should prioritize those with secure architectures that minimize the risk of data breaches with patient data.

For example, solutions that utilize “no-data” architecture, where the vendor does not have access to or visibility into customer data, can significantly reduce the risk of supply chain attacks.

By choosing software providers that prioritize data security and privacy, healthcare companies can better protect sensitive patient information.

Don’t wait until it’s too late to act

The last place you want to find yourself in is the headlines with your user data being held for ransom and your reputation hanging by a thread. That’s why healthcare companies must implement secure architectures from the get-go rather than waiting until it’s too late.

  • Proactively identify and address vulnerabilities through regular risk assessments and robust access controls.
  • Encrypt sensitive data and invest in employee training to create a strong first line of defense.
  • Vet and monitor third-party vendors and prioritize secure software architectures to minimize supply chain risks.

At Onymos, we understand the unique challenges faced by healthcare organizations in protecting sensitive data. Whether you’re in healthcare or any other industry, we’re here to help you navigate the complex landscape of data security and implement strategies to safeguard your most valuable assets.

Don’t wait until a breach occurs to prioritize data security. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you protect your data and maintain the trust of your customers.

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