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11 Ways to Prevent Breaches of Confidentiality in Healthcare

Paul Kovalenko Paul Kovalenko | March 27, 2023 | 10 min

As technology progresses in all industries, criminals are also going digital. They break into systems and steal data to profit from on black markets or by blackmailing the people affected.

Unfortunately, cyber crime is rising and is unlikely to become less prevalent anytime soon. According to statistics, malware infections have increased significantly, from 28.84 million in 2010 to 677.66 million in 2020.

Taken from: https://www.statista.com  

Cyber attacks occur every 39 seconds, targeting both large enterprises and small businesses.

The healthcare industry hasn’t escaped the attention of cyber criminals. In February 2020 alone, 1,531,855 health records were breached during 39 healthcare incidents.

Why Are Healthcare Providers Vulnerable to Data Security Breaches?

Why would someone want to access health information? What is its value?

Electronic health records (EHRs) have all kinds of sensitive personally identifiable information — full names, addresses, family information, social security numbers, payment details, patient history, etc. For criminals, accessing it is like winning the lottery. There’s just so much personal information and blackmail material. EHRs and electronic medical records (EMRs) can cost hundreds and thousands of dollars on the black market compared to $4 for social security numbers or $5–8 for a credit card number.

In several cases involving ransomware, rather than selling the protected health information, hackers extorted money from organizations fighting to protect their patients’ data. Organizations like hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and insurance companies are prime targets. A recent JAMA Health Forum study indicates that health clinics are the most common target.

In this article, we will explain how these breaches can affect your organization, plus how to prevent data breaches in the healthcare sector.

What Problems Can Healthcare Organizations Face from Data Breaches?

Healthcare institutions can suffer greatly from data breaches. There are strict data regulations in the industry that impose huge fines if breaches occur. For example, the American Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) imposes fees of $100 to $50,000 per violation, based on the gravity of the breach. The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) imposes fines of up to €10 million, and this applies worldwide if a European citizen is involved.

Data breaches in healthcare are actually the most expensive — they now cost $2 million to $9.42 million per incident.

However, it’s not just about huge fines. Data breaches in the health system have long-term impacts that are probably even worse.

Connected medical devices (IoT devices) have resulted in the need for additional data security measures. Hardware and firmware requirements have also increased. Third-party technologies not designed with security in mind increase the risk. EHR systems are typically the targets of these attacks. Advancements in digital infrastructure and an increase in connected devices have significantly increased the attack surface for cybercriminals, and EHR systems are central to it all. They control the majority of care workflows and store intricate details about each patient.

You will have to invest in software upgrades, experience technology downtime while systems are checked, provide affected patients with identity monitoring, and invest in resolving lawsuits filed by patients whose information was leaked.

Besides the lost data, one of the most serious losses in a data privacy breach is the healthcare provider’s reputation. If the case gains attention, patients are likely to seek other hospitals where their medical records will be handled more safely. Business partners are also unlikely to be happy about the breach. As a result, hospitals have to spend 64% more on advertising and double their efforts in cyber security to gain back their patients’ and partners’ trust.

11 Ways to Prevent Security Breaches in Healthcare

Luckily, there are numerous ways to avoid such significant and serious consequences. You need to invest effort and money in best practices to prevent a data breach in healthcare since it’s much less expensive than dealing with the fallout of a breach.

Read on to find the 11 best ways to prevent a breach of confidentiality in healthcare.

#1 Evaluate the Current Condition of Your IT Infrastructure

Assessing your current state of security is the first step. Scan your system and understand what can potentially go wrong. Don’t forget to consider staff members’ personal devices and smart technologies (elevators, monitors, wearables, etc.).

The audit should be performed at least once every six months since cyber security efforts become outdated quickly.

#2 Create Different Levels of Access 

Not every employee in your healthcare institution has to have access to all health records. For example, volunteers, security, and third-party partners don’t really need access to all the details in patient files. One of the main rules of data security that we’ve mentioned before is limiting the number of people who can view certain EHR/EMRs and give access only to those who need it and who work with the patient directly. Implement role-based access in order to give only vital information to users and limit what they can do with the data (for example, view only, view and export, or modify).

#3 Subnet Wireless Networks

You can divide your wireless network (better known as wi-fi) into different small networks and subnetworks. This enables your hospital visitors to use one subnetwork while your physicians use the other and prevents sensitive patient data from entering the public network. You can also create a separate network for medical devices.  

#4 Keep Track of Personal Devices

Health tech makes it possible to access patient data from any device, speeding up digitalization in healthcare. However, it does create additional risk: security teams can’t control individual devices and put additional security on them without employees giving permission.

So is it possible to avoid data breaches in healthcare while allowing users to use their personal devices? It is if you create a specific policy for this. State why security is important, what kind of devices employees can use within and outside the hospital, what they can do to be able to use their devices securely, what apps they can use, etc.

Need help developing an e-health app?
Reach out to Langate

#5 Educate Your Employees 

Personal devices are not the only place where employees can accidentally cause a breach. Human mistakes are the second most common cause of data breaches. So it is one of the best ways to prevent data breaches in healthcare. Employees don’t typically know much about security, and it’s not their fault. After all, they studied to become doctors — not cyber security experts!

To solve this, make sure that your cyber security training materials are available to everyone and are delivered in the easiest way possible.

Teach medical staff about the following to minimize the possibility of an accidental breach:

  • Don’t leave records and devices unattended. Physical security is as important as digital security, but we often forget about it. Even a single unattended corporate computer can enable easy entry into the system.
  • Beware of phishing scams. Emails are still a popular form of communication in healthcare. Moreover, employees may use emails, as well as SMS, for personal reasons while at work, and they may not know what phishing is, how to detect the attack, and how to prevent security breaches. Explain how phishing works and tell them how to identify a dangerous email or text message.
  • Don’t stick sticky notes with passwords on your computer screen or keep all your passwords in one place.
  • Don’t use public wi-fi while reviewing work documents and health records.
  • Be careful with CDs and USB sticks.

Don’t forget to check employees’ knowledge after the training and help those who are still struggling.

#6 Modernize Obsolete IT Infrastructure

Old hardware, systems, and devices are often not supported by the manufacturer. This means that few organizations update their security systems. Even if a manufacturer still provides support, it is unlikely that the device can handle modern threats.  For the sake of security (and your stress levels, since old systems are difficult and time-consuming to operate), stop using outdated products.

#7 Update Your Software Regularly 

Every software update has new security patches or tools for detecting and eliminating new types of malware. If you don’t update the software, you’ll have a security weakness in the program that can be misused by hackers, or your system won’t be ready for new malware. Even though updating everything is a routine and uninteresting task, it has to be done. 

#8 Encrypt Data

Encrypting data involves the system turning data into unreadable code. You’ll only be able to bring it back to normal if you have a decryption key. Encrypted data is protected data, and you can’t be penalized if you use encryption. 

#9 Figure Out Retention Schedules

You don’t need to hold a health record in your digital environment for eternity. Otherwise, you will lose too much sensitive information and incur higher penalties in the event of a breach. Another cause for concern is that your databases will quickly become full.

Create guidelines detailing what information to store, for how long, and where. The destruction process also needs to be considered. If you throw documents and health records in the trash, someone can easily use them. To avoid this, it’s best to shred documents before disposal. In a digital environment, be sure to delete health information from hard drives, flash drives, CT scanners, EEG machines, X-rays, etc., and perform media and electronic shredding. Simply pressing delete isn’t enough.

#10 Choose Your Partners Wisely

You may have the best security ever and update your systems regularly, but your efforts may all be in vain if you share information with third parties (like billing or pharmacy) that don’t follow security guidelines.

So, how can you prevent data breaches in healthcare organizations and beyond? Make sure that your partners follow security protocols like HIPAA and GDPR, handle information responsibly, and don’t give access to everyone. While setting up the contract, state that you will be the only owner of the data so that your partner doesn’t send it to other third parties.

#11 Have a Response Plan  

Some cyber security experts say that, with data breaches, it’s not a question of if but when. It’s extremely difficult to keep up with all the new threats and attacks. This means you not only have to work to prevent security breaches in healthcare but to recover from them as well.

While working on your healthcare enterprise risk management strategy, make sure that you can detect potential threats, immediately close systems in the event of an intrusion, remove affected files, and save all the artifacts and details of the breach. You would also want to have contact with the legal team in such occurrences, have a plan to communicate the incident to the public, and a recovery plan.

How Can We Organizations Help Avoid Data Breaches in Healthcare?

Langate has been working in the healthcare technology industry for over 20 years. We have our own HIPAA-compliance center, we know typical vulnerabilities in the IT infrastructure of medical systems, and we can effectively prevent a healthcare data breach.

We perform security audits with attention to detail, help you create an incident response plan, and navigate file destruction and retention. You can also rely on our reputation management solutions to keep on top of everything. Our experienced cybersecurity experts will also update your software regularly and create encryption and role-based access systems if you don’t have any. In addition, we have helped several clients in the healthcare space to refine their identity and access management with solutions like employee recognition SaaS platforms and facial recognition solutions.

Summing Up

Data breaches in healthcare are costly, both in terms of money and hospital reputation. Preventing data breaches in healthcare includes controlling access levels, educating your employees, utilizing best cybersecurity practices, and being ready to respond to the breach if it happens.

At Langate, you can find the best cybersecurity experts with industry-specific experience and vast knowledge of legal regulations. Don’t hesitate to reach out to Langate to find out more and prevent data breaches in healthcare.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many data breaches occurred in 2022 in healthcare?

According to HHS reports, 590 organizations notified authorities of healthcare data breaches in 2022. The largest attacks were on third-party mailing vendor OneTouchPoint, Eye Care Leaders (ECL), which offers an ophthalmology-specific EMR solution, and Advocate Aurora Health.

What are the types of attacks in data breaches in the healthcare industry?

Data breaches in healthcare occur through phishing, ransomware attacks, and exploitation of vulnerabilities in hardware and software that make up the attack surface. Addressing these is key to preventing a healthcare data breach.

How can organizations prevent data breaches in healthcare?

Leveraging security risk analysis, updating IT infrastructure, and monitoring all devices and records are key in how to prevent breach of confidentiality in healthcare. In addition to working with trusted partners, you will also need to limit access to patient data and the use of personal devices.

How can organizations decrease the risk of data breaches in healthcare?

Ways to prevent security breaches in healthcare organizations include educating users on secure practices, confining guests to a wireless network separate from your IT infrastructure, and investing in effective and knowledgeable IT staff.

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