Over the past decade or so, advances in the field of electronic health records have revolutionized the medical industry at every level. Unfortunately, cyber criminals have followed the money and made the data that healthcare organizations possess a primary target of their malicious attacks. The HIPAA Journal estimates that ransomware attacks cost healthcare providers at least $20.8 billion in 2020 when all is said and done. As such, preventing healthcare ransom attacks before they occur should be a top priority for health networks and practices across the board.
What is Ransomware?
Ransomware is a catch-all term denoting malicious software that denies victims access to critical data until they pay a fee to release said data. A ransomware program typically encrypts information such as electronic health records so that the target can’t decrypt it without a key the attacker holds. Oftentimes, ransomware is delivered via emails, enticing recipients to open an attachment or click on a link. Thanks to the proliferation of ransomware “kits” on the dark web, it’s easy for cyber criminals to attack vulnerable networks of all kinds.
Why Is It So Dangerous?
Healthcare ransom attacks are disastrous for two reasons: the disclosure of private client information and financial losses due to downtime. Most healthcare IT systems fall prey to ransomware attacks because they run on old machines and outdated software for the most part. If hackers are holding EMRs hostage, there’s the possibility that lives could hang in the balance if a certain procedure or test must be executed quickly. What’s more, healthcare providers that don’t have ransomware policies in place to deal with these situations can end up losing a fortune.
How to Prevent Ransomware Attacks on Healthcare Data?
Train Users and Employees to Identify Threats
While healthcare ransom attacks have become increasingly sophisticated, classic exploits like malicious email attachments account for the bulk of ransomware infections. Teaching staff members who don’t have an IT background how to spot the signs of a potential email attack is just common sense. At a minimum, your IT staff should create a simple guide for employees that will educate them on the finer points of phishing avoidance. There are plenty of high-quality phishing simulators available that allow healthcare workers to avoid being duped by hackers.
Make HIPAA Compliance a Top Priority
While complying with HIPAA regulations can be a headache, doing so is an effective way to guarantee superior protection against ransomware. For instance, HIPAA stipulates that healthcare organizations must “devise a security management process to safeguard electronic protected health information”, or ePHI. What’s more, a HIPAA-compliant organization must ensure that the end users of IT systems are trained to report risks in a timely fashion. Complying with HIPAA security incident procedures keeps you on the right side of the law and saves money in the long run by revealing holes in your security systems.
Move Data to Cloud Storage Repositories
More and more IT professionals are relying on cloud storage nowadays to keep important EHRs safe from pervasive access-denial attacks throughout the day. Cloud storage solutions provide an extra level of protection against ransomware attacks that many in-house healthcare IT systems simply can’t match. While no cloud storage solution is 100% impervious to ransomware attacks, keeping your data on remote servers is a better way to avoid hacks. What’s more, cloud storage makes it easier for healthcare organizations to remain compliant with HIPAA’s stringent security and confidentiality standards.
Backup Data on a Regular Basis
It’s a lot harder for cybercriminals to hold your data for ransom if you’ve got multiple copies of it stored in different locations. A mix of local, in-house data and cloud storage backups that are updated on a daily basis can easily mitigate the damage that ransomware attacks can cause. Spending a little extra a month on multiple copies of your EHR collection can pay off big time later on. Even the most sophisticated ransomware programs have a hard time encrypting every copy of an EHR database.
Restrict Access to Data
One of the easiest ways to ensure above-average protection against ransomware is by limiting the ability of IT staff and end users alike to perform certain actions. For instance, only trusted IT professionals who have a background in cybersecurity should be allowed to install software. Furthermore, limiting access to shared resources like EHRs via password protection is another great way to curtail the damage that can be caused by ransomware attacks. IT administrators must take care to limit user privileges throughout the systems under their control to stop the spread of malware.
Perform Risk Assessments
At the end of the day, periodic risk assessments are the best way for IT administrators to locate weaknesses in their lines of defense against ransomware attacks and fix them ASAP. A forensic audit of a healthcare organization’s IT infrastructure from top to bottom is a good place to start. Professional third-party risk assessment outfits can go through your IT stack and suggest simple ways to eliminate vulnerabilities without breaking the bank. Ultimately, it’s better to know where your weaknesses lie and do something about them before somebody else does.
Utilize a SaaS Solution
Healthcare software solutions come in all shapes and sizes depending on the needs of the client in question. For smaller practices, outsourcing critical IT infrastructure administration to software as a service (SaaS) providers can make a lot of fiscal sense. SaaS outfits can make short work of data backup and software upkeep while charging far less than in-house IT professionals often do. When you rely on SaaS to keep your practice running like clockwork day and night, you don’t have to worry about keeping an eye on security updates and threat detection.
Update Software Regularly
Even if you have the best cloud storage and SaaS service providers available backing up your network, hackers can still exploit software vulnerabilities at the end-user level. Keeping your anti-malware software up to date on devices authorized to access your network is a must if you wish to avoid ransomware attacks. The deadliest ransomware threats are constantly changing from day to day and week to week. Failure to implement security patches to critical software as soon as they become available can spell disaster for healthcare providers of all stripes before you know it.
Invest in Cybersecurity Insurance
Once a ransomware breach has occurred, there’s no telling how much it will cost a healthcare provider to solve the problem for good. Fortunately, there are insurance policies available that will cover those damages if your practice or healthcare network is affected. The key to locking down great insurance that indemnifies healthcare providers from liability should a ransomware attack be successful comes down to reading the fine print. Before you sign on with any insurance carrier, have an attorney who specializes in these scenarios carefully examine the contract beforehand.
Securing the Future of Your Healthcare Organization by Investing in Ransomware Prevention
It’s impossible to predict what the ransomware landscape will look like in the coming years, though attacks are sure to become more sophisticated and more destructive. The financial losses can run into the billions and the human costs associated with disruptions to medical treatment are incalculable. Fortunately, implementing ransomware protection protocols and using the latest technologies, you can greatly reduce the odds of suffering from ransomware disasters.
Author Bio: John Bailey: Global Director of Healthcare, Chetu Inc.
John Bailey is an industry expert within the healthcare landscape. He works at Chetu Inc., Plantation, Fla., a custom software development provider and thought-leader within the IT community. He offers commentary on changing tides within the healthcare industry including EHRs, telehealth and veterinary software.
John is a guest blogger. All opinions are his own.