With cyber threats on the rise, healthcare organizations must have a top down, dynamic approach to cybersecurity

By Edward Myers

The healthcare industry is at a critical juncture, facing the dual challenges of safeguarding invaluable patient data and defending against relentless cyberattacks. The stakes could not be higher and the consequences of inadequate cybersecurity measures are dire with delayed diagnoses, disrupted care, and even lives hanging in the balance.

With each advance in technology, cybercriminals sharpen their tools. The urgency was underscored in a recent report by ECRI, placing “Ransomware Attacks on the Healthcare Sector” as the sixth most critical threat to healthcare technology in 2024. In a recent investigation, NBC Washington revealed a worrying statistic regarding cyberattacks, noting that over the last years, six in 10 healthcare organizations have been compromised by ransomware attacks.

The healthcare industry can’t afford to treat cybersecurity as an afterthought. The American Hospital Association identifies ransomware as its biggest concern due to the impact on patient safety. Additionally, the financial implications are immense, encompassing ransom demands, recovery costs, and regulatory fines.

Cybercriminals see healthcare organizations as lucrative targets due to their data-rich environments and often inadequate cybersecurity defenses that prioritize clinical operations over IT security. This vulnerability is exploited through ransomware, data breaches, phishing schemes, and denial-of-service attacks, posing severe risks to patient safety and operational continuity.

We need adaptive, cutting-edge solutions to remain operational and prevent these disruptions before they become critical emergencies.

Implementing a Proactive Strategy: Actionable Steps

The good news? Organizations can strengthen their defenses and counter these threats. Healthcare organizations must adopt a proactive and comprehensive cybersecurity strategy.

To bolster cybersecurity in an increasingly interconnected landscape, it is essential to begin with inventory and visibility, gathering precise data about network-connected devices using advanced technologies like protocol analyzers and deep packet inspection. This information enables proactive risk management, resource optimization, and heightened security.

Prioritizing resources and maintaining quick response capabilities is vital for vulnerability mitigation and threat detection. Identifying potential vulnerabilities and focusing on the riskiest devices and areas in your environment aids in managing cybersecurity threats efficiently. This dynamic process requires ongoing vigilance to stay ahead of cyber adversaries.

Finally, effective threat detection and incident response rely on establishing device behavior rules and facilitating swift identification of suspicious activities and misconfigurations. 

Organizations can fortify their defenses by implementing precise guidelines that can proactively help prevent cyber threats. Considering recent insights from the American Hospital Association, the need for healthcare facilities to extend their technological contingency plans has never been more critical. While many hospitals have strategies to continue operations without technology for as many as 96 hours, experts argue that this timeframe is insufficient. The recommendation now is for hospitals to prepare for the possibility of technology outages lasting up to 30 days.

Additional Building Blocks to Strengthening Your Security Posture

ECRI outlines a comprehensive approach based on the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Cybersecurity Framework (NIST CSF). Their framework emphasizes five essential functions:

  1. Identify: Regularly assess vulnerabilities and risks through scans and evaluations.
  2. Protect: Implement safeguards like firewalls, multi-factor authentication (MFA), and network segmentation to create a layered defense.
  3. Detect: Utilize monitoring tools and intrusion detection systems to identify suspicious activity and potential attacks.
  4. Respond: Develop a clear incident response plan outlining actions for ransomware scenarios, downtime procedures, and communication protocols.
  5. Recover: Maintain regular backups and test restoration procedures to ensure swift recovery from attacks.

Three Key Points to Remember:

  • Leadership sets the tone: Executives must champion security and demonstrate their commitment through their actions.
  • Make it easy to do the right thing: Provide accessible resources and tools that make adhering to security protocols simple and efficient.
  • Security is everyone’s responsibility: Recognize the human element as a potential weakness in the cybersecurity chain. Foster a sense of shared ownership where everyone, from doctors to housekeeping staff, feels empowered to contribute to patient safety and data protection.

As we navigate this landscape of malicious actors and sophisticated threats, healthcare organizations must rise to the occasion. This means adopting a proactive approach to cybersecurity. The building blocks for a stronger security posture are constant vigilance, advanced technologies, robust response plans, and a culture of shared responsibility.

In the face of evolving cyber threats, the role of leadership is pivotal in establishing a culture of cybersecurity, where every member, from clinicians to support staff, actively participates in safeguarding security. Leaders must ensure that security protocols are both accessible and straightforward, empowering all staff to contribute to patient safety and data protection.

To effectively counter sophisticated cyber threats, the healthcare sector must adopt a dynamic approach, integrating robust technologies and stringent protocols. This strategy, coupled with a culture that emphasizes shared responsibility, equips healthcare organizations to adeptly navigate and mitigate the challenges of cyber threats.

Edward Myers is national director of cybersecurity at Crothall Healthcare Technology Solutions. Questions and comments can be directed to [email protected].