There can be little doubt that recent technological advances have enormous potential to benefit both patients and practitioners across the healthcare sector. As administrators and engineers strive to capture the benefits sensor technology and big data analysis can offer however, EHR systems are increasingly coming under threat from cyber security breaches, and, in particular, from increasingly sophisticated ransomware attacks.
That news comes from the most recent IDC Worldwide Healthcare Predictions Report, the latest in an annual series designed to give insight into likely technology and business issues in the healthcare sector over the next three years. The report concludes, while the increased adoption of IoT technology will drive significant productivity and efficiency gains in the health sector, the resulting convergence of social, mobile, and sensor factors will result in an increased vulnerability to ransomware attacks, which it has estimated will double in number by 2018.
The Emerging Ransomware Threat
Before looking at the specific issues making the healthcare sector more vulnerable to attack than other sectors, let’s look at the rise and development of the ransomware threat.
According to the Ransomware and Business 2016 Report from Symantec, ransomware has emerged as one of the most prevalent and dangerous cyber threats facing both individuals and organizations today. The report describes the increased menace and maturity of ransomware techniques as creating a “gold-rush mentality” amongst the cyber attack community as growing numbers seek to cash in.
More sophisticated and better-targeted forms of attack are replacing the wide scale, indiscriminate approach that had previously been more common. While earlier attacks could be overcome by the removal of malware, the last two years has, according to the report, seen the perfection of crypto-ransomware techniques. Exposure to these infections can result in the application of unbreakable encryptions on user files. Removal of the malware leaves the encryption in place. As a result, without backup, paying the ransom may be the only way to release the encrypted files—not a good place to be for any organization.
The fact that many victims never disclose whether they have paid a ransom, or indeed whether they may have been under attack, means that it’s impossible to accurately measure total losses to ransomware. What is revealed in the report, however, is the average ransom discovered so far has more than doubled from the $294 seen in 2015, to $679 in the first half of 2016. It seems likely that these relatively moderate amounts can only increase significantly as more sophisticated attacks target larger organizations.
The Symantec report highlighted a ransomware attack on The Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center earlier this year. That attack resulted in a payment of a Bitcoin ransom to the tune of $17,000 to the hacker; a drop in the bucket compared to the potential monetary and reputational costs that might also flow from an attack.
The Vulnerable Health Sector
Healthcare seems to be a sweet target for hackers, compared to the retail and financial sectors, which have traditionally been making greater investments in technology and IT security. According to the IDS report, healthcare may continue to be a hot target for ransomware attacks over the next few years as they struggle to update legacy systems, put the right kind of security measures in place and basically catch the heck up.
The drive to innovate—whether focused on making it easier for clinicians to operate, to develop healthcare apps, and/or systems designed to improve the patient experience can’t operate in a vacuum; security must also remain a top priority in order to deter potential hackers and protect patient information. Lynne Dunbrack, research president of IDC Health Insights and one of the authors of the IDS report told HealthSecurity.com, “It’s about walking that line between ensuring that that innovation is secure, but that we’re also being able to move forward with new technologies as well.”
Achieving that balance in healthcare isn’t much different than in other sectors. The healthcare sector, however, faces some additional potential consequences that can mean even greater implications for an organization under attack; and can make the sector a juicy target for attackers as well.
- Clinical systems may need to be taken offline during IT repair and remediation creating potential patient safety issues
- Patient records and medical history may be unavailable, resulting in treatment delays or the dispensing of incorrect medication
- Essential medical equipment might be affected, potentially putting patients’ lives at risk
- There may be regulatory issues if the disclosure or loss of patient data results from a ransomware attack. These can result even if the attack is through a third-party relationship under the HIPAA regulations.
These of course are in addition to all the other financial and reputational costs all organizations face in the wake of a breach.
According to Dunbrack, healthcare organizations need to be hypervigilant, with employees understanding that security is the responsibility of staff at all levels. She told HealthSecurity.com, “[Security] requires a fair amount of education for the people within the hospital, the end users themselves: the nurses, the physicians, the clerical staff. Everyone needs to be very careful about what they click on in incoming email, for example. It’s very easy for end users to click on a link and download the malware that then goes out and compromises the system.”
A Positive Future for Healthcare IT
Subject to the security warnings however, the report did forecast a very healthy future for IT in healthcare. Predictions for the next three years include:
- By 2019 the use of robots to deliver medications, food, and supplies in hospitals will increase by 50 percent
- By 2019, sixty percent of healthcare applications will collect real time location and clinical data and embed cognitive capabilities to discover patterns and free up clinicians’ time
- By 2019, more than 40 percent of healthcare organizations across the world will use IoT- enabled biosensors to measure patients’ vital signs
- By 2020, 20 percent more patients will be engaged in their health using real time data from wearable devices
- Drug manufacturers will double their investment in analytics focused on HCP data by 2018, so that they can reach Millennial and Gen X doctors by their preferred electronic methods
Artificial Intelligence, robotics, and Internet of Things applications look set to drive forward the pace of digital transformation in the healthcare sector. The threat of ransomware attacks will, however, continue to ever present, with the IDS report suggesting that the situation is bound to get worse before improvements are seen.
The challenge for those responsible for technology implementation will be to ensure that innovation isn’t stifled, while at the same time safeguarding systems and data from ransomware and other malicious attacks. Achieving that balance is critical to maintaining trust in the system and capturing the many benefits health technology has to offer.
Have you suffered a ransomware attack? Oh wait, if you have, I’ll bet you’re likely not talking about it. Okay, what security measures do YOU suggest healthcare organizations take? Let’s hear it.
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