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How Strong Cybersecurity Hygiene Can Help Rural Healthcare Systems Hack off the Hackers | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #ransomware


Unlike urban areas with readily accessible medical facilities, rural regions often lack nearby healthcare options. Some areas rely on a single hospital within a 100+ mile radius, and a cyberattack on such a hospital could leave thousands without healthcare, with potentially deadly outcomes. Today, concern is growing as healthcare organizations and hospitals face increasingly sophisticated cyber threats. In addition, if rural hospitals are partnering with pharmaceutical companies in clinical trials or share data with external partners, a cyberattack on one hospital could impact partner and clinical trial systems, while attacks on partner networks can also affect connected hospitals.

The healthcare and pharma sectors heavily depend on technology and interconnected systems to provide critical services. An attack on one hospital can ripple across an entire network, affecting healthcare providers, pharmaceutical research partners, manufacturers and crucially, patients. Safeguarding rural healthcare and pharmaceutical networks and addressing security issues with robust cybersecurity is imperative to ensure the security and confidentiality of patient data, patient health, the integrity of medical processes and the safety of pharmaceutical research and production.

The severity and cost of cybersecurity attacks

Cyberattacks on healthcare are increasing in both number and sophistication and the statistics are alarming. A HIPAA Journal report for 2023, for example, reported 395 incidents exposing or stealing records of almost 60 million individuals through the end of July 2023. That month alone witnessed 18,116,982 records exposed. The cost of cyberattacks is another important concern. IBM’s latest Cost of a Data Breach report  states the average cost of a data breach globally reached an all-time high of $4.45 million in 2023, up 2.3% from 2022 and 15.3% from 2020. The average data breach cost in healthcare has risen in 2023 to reach $10.93 million, the costliest for any industry, while for pharmaceutical organizations, it was $4.82 million.

Such are the severity and potential damage of cyberattacks to healthcare organizations that the risks of insufficient cybersecurity in healthcare can have dire consequences due to the vast amounts of sensitive patient data, including medical records, insurance info and personal identifiers they store, not to mention, the critical services they provide. As facilities become more network connected, they gain a competitive edge, but this comes with a greater attack surface to protect from cybercriminals and simple human error.

The risks of insufficient cybersecurity posture

Insufficient cybersecurity can lead to data breaches, exposing patients’ private information, which can result in medical identity theft and financial fraud. Hackers may manipulate patient data and use their identity to obtain medical services, prescription drugs, or insurance benefits, potentially leading to inaccurate medical records and incorrect treatment. Accessing medical devices or systems can potentially interfere with medical equipment, posing a direct risk to patient safety, especially in emergency situations or during the management of public health crises.

Cyberattacks can use ransomware to paralyze healthcare by encrypting patient records, causing downtime and increased costs, while distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks can disrupt healthcare services, affecting patient care and procedures and risking non-compliance with regulations like HIPAA which can lead to fines and legal action. In addition, data breaches erode patient-doctor confidentiality and trust in healthcare providers, damaging reputations and leading to patient loss and revenue decline.

Subpar cybersecurity can also affect critical healthcare supply vendors and suppliers who provide medical equipment and services, which can compromise the integrity of healthcare systems and impact patient care. Furthermore, healthcare institutions often partner with pharmaceutical companies in research and development, so network attacks on either end can lead to both networks being infected. When pharmaceutical company systems are compromised, it can result in the theft of valuable research data and intellectual property, halting critical drug trials and negatively impacting innovation.

Implementing strong cybersecurity hygiene

Protecting rural healthcare and pharmaceutical networks is an ongoing effort that requires comprehensive cybersecurity that goes beyond traditional IT systems, combining technical solutions, employee education, and a commitment to staying up to date with evolving cyber threats. The following steps are a good place to start implementing strong cybersecurity hygiene practices:

  1. Assessment of network assets: Conducting a thorough assessment of the entire network will provide an understanding of current attack surface and asset vulnerabilities, including higher risk, obsolete hardware or software, potential entry points for cyberattacks, existing infrastructure weaknesses, and any regulatory compliance gaps.
  2. Risk management plan development: Based on the assessment, a comprehensive risk management plan can be developed outlining specific risks, their potential impact, and strategies for mitigation, prioritizing risks based on severity and likelihood of occurrence. This plan also outlines how to detect, immediately respond to, and quickly recover from cybersecurity incidents and return to active service, with root-cause incident investigation to follow. This plan should be regularly tested and updated.
  3. Adopt appropriate security protocols: The next step in maintaining business continuity is to adopt robust network security capabilities, addressing risk across an attack continuum. This typically includes firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems, and regular network monitoring. It’s important to that all network-connected devices and systems are regularly patched and updated to address known vulnerabilities.
  4. Invest in staff training: Train healthcare and pharmaceutical staff on cybersecurity best practices and the importance of adhering to security protocols. Human error is a common cause of security breaches, so education is essential.
  5. Deploy proactive monitoring tools: Network visibility is vital, and continuous monitoring tools should be implemented to detect anomalies and potential threats in real-time. This proactive approach can help identify and respond to threats before they cause significant harm. Healthcare organizations, pharmaceutical partners and even government agencies can collaborate to share information about emerging threats and best practices for cybersecurity.
  6. Always have a back up plan: Regularly backing up critical data and systems and having a robust disaster recovery plan in place enables operations to be restored quickly in the event of a cyberattack.
  7. Have stringent access and verification control: Who has access to data is critical, and with the increasing use of telemedicine and remote work, secure remote access solutions must be in place. Implement virtual private networks (VPNs) and multi-factor authentication (MFA) to enhance remote access security. Access to sensitive systems and data should be restricted through strong access controls, with role-based access controls (RBAC) that ensure only authorized personnel can access critical information.
  8. Ensure data is encrypted: Data encryption, both in transit and at rest, can help protect patient records, pharmaceutical research data, and proprietary information. This helps to prevent unauthorized access, even if data is intercepted.
  9. Conduct regular security audits: Maintaining compliance with industry-specific regulations and standards, such as HIPAA, GDPR, or FDA regulations is critical for pharmaceutical companies. Regularly assessing network cybersecurity and the practices of supply chain partners, third-party vendors and contractors who have network access or provide critical services. Monitor vendor standards and verify that they meet security standards.

Cybersecurity is a boardroom-level issue for healthcare institutions and pharmaceutical partners. The statistics are too serious to ignore. However, implementing protective measures spanning both IT and OT network security design to safeguard highly sensitive data systems and practicing good cyber hygiene can minimize operational disruption, minimize risk, safeguard patient and research data and help protect an organization’s reputation.

Photo: Traitov, Getty Images

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