With troves of patient data, hospitals and healthcare systems have become increasingly integral to the development of clinical trial design and treatment modalities. Unfortunately, hospitals and health systems have also become a growing target for cybercriminals looking to exploit valuable information via cyberattacks.

According to a recent survey, more than one in three healthcare organizations around the world reported being hit by ransomware in 2020: and there is little indication of any slowdown. One study conducted in 2021 found that attacks against health plans rose nearly 35% from 2020 to 2021. Furthermore, there was a rise from 14 million total victims of healthcare attacks in 2018 to 45 million in 2021. As health data continues to become more accessible digitally, hospitals must begin prioritizing updating old infrastructure and implementing data security strategies to best safeguard sensitive patient information.

Implications of obsolete infrastructure

Since the start of the pandemic, many hospitals and health systems have rightly become consumed with budget shortfalls and ongoing labor shortages. This has led to investments in modern technology falling by the wayside, leading hospitals and health systems to continue operating on outdated systems. In fact, a study conducted in 2020 found that 83% of hospital infrastructure is running on outdated software, largely attributable to now unsupported Windows 7 operating systems. In many cases the software in question is no longer being supported by its original developer. This means that upgrades that would patch vulnerabilities and safeguard data are not unavailable. Moreover, from unencrypted Internet of Things (IoT) device traffic to VLANs mixing IoT and IT assets, these outdated systems operate on extensive networks without elaborate security measures, making the system especially prone to cyberattacks.

This lack of cybersecurity measures has obvious implications for data privacy. Research is also demonstrating that healthcare cyberattacks are linked to other negative outcomes in patient care and patient finances. A 2022 study found that the most common ramifications of cyberattacks are delayed procedures and tests. 57 percent of surveyed providers reported negative patient outcomes; 50% reported increased complications from medical procedures. Cyberattacks can jeopardize access to health records or even alter patient data, impacting a caregiver’s ability to provide effective care for a patient. Cyberattacks also can place a serious strain on hospital finances, only compounding cost pressures with elevated expenses and low margins caused by the pandemic. According to a report by IBM Security, the average healthcare breach now costs $10.1 million, usually attributed to losses induced by system shutdowns.

Strategies for the future of healthcare cybersecurity

As healthcare executives look to protect patient data from malicious attackers, they should consider a robust variety of data security strategies. Some options are encryption for healthcare data both at rest and in transit, backup mechanics and data recovery systems, and two-factor login authentication for users permitted to access private data. Healthcare executives also must choose third-party partners that utilize protective measures to defend against cyber threats through programs such as System and Organization Controls (SOC) and Health Information Trust Alliance (HITRUST). These measures ensure the confidentiality and privacy of the data managed by complying organizations.

Exacerbating the potential for loss through cyberattacks is the fact that many hospitals and health system employees also still lack proper education on cybersecurity. A 2019 survey found that a third of healthcare IT respondents reported being aware of their organization’s cybersecurity policy, and two in five surveyed healthcare workers in North America stated they were not aware of cybersecurity measures in place at their organization to protect IT devices. Healthcare organization executives must implement more rigorous workforce security training and better educate workers on the steps required to keep patient information safe and secure.

Adopting modern IT infrastructure is increasingly important as cyberattacks and malware become more frequent and sophisticated. If critical software updates and cybersecurity education continue to be deprioritized, healthcare providers are at risk of reducing the quality of care and patients losing trust in the healthcare industry. Healthcare organizations that take the necessary steps to improve to their information security posture will be better positioned to improve outcomes, avoid financially catastrophic outages and lead the industry in leveraging clinical data for crucial innovation. 

This article originally ran in Today’s Cybersecurity Leader, a monthly cybersecurity-focused eNewsletter for security end users brought to you by Security magazine. Subscribe here.