Cybersecurity in Healthcare Services


Updated April 12, 2023

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Healthcare relies on cybersecurity to keep patient and medical data safe. Cybersecurity protocols, software, and systems protect medical records, biomedical research, and personally identifying information from healthcare cyberthreats.

As healthcare organizations have adopted electronic records to store, organize, and report medical data, the need for cybersecurity in healthcare has grown.

Every healthcare subindustry needs cybersecurity, including pharmaceuticals, insurance, and health administration. These sectors employ cybersecurity professionals like quality analysts, security administrators, and penetration testers.

Use this guide to explore vulnerabilities, affected industries, and opportunities for improvement in healthcare cybersecurity.

Why Cybersecurity in Healthcare Is Critical

Healthcare cyberthreats may be more sophisticated now, but they have existed for decades. For instance, in 1989, a World Health Organization AIDS Conference attendee passed out floppy discs with tracking codes that shut down computer systems after counting 90 reboots.

The healthcare industry has often been a target for cyberattacks. In 2014, an anonymous attack interfered with Boston Children's Hospital's website traffic and threatened the hospital's network and database. In 2019, a ransomware attack prevented hundreds of dental offices from accessing patient records.

2021 brought multiple high-profile healthcare data breaches exposing more than 40 million patient records across the United States.

Because the healthcare industry holds sensitive personal information about patients, cybersecurity plays a crucial role in protecting that information. Both small practices and large organizations must ensure network security.

Below, explore common healthcare cybersecurity threats and opportunities for improvement within the industry.

Common Vulnerabilities

  • Ransomware: Some of the most prominent cybersecurity healthcare threats in 2019-2021 included ransomware. Ransomware holds sensitive information hostage in exchange for something else, like money. These attacks can threaten the personal data of patients and medical staff. The Federal Bureau of Investigation assists healthcare organizations undergoing ransomware attacks.
  • Phishing: Healthcare phishing uses realistic forms of communication, like emails or texts, to access sensitive data through ransomware, malware, or forms asking for information. Usually, phishing attempts target protected health information. Careful network administration and staff education can help prevent phishing attacks.
  • Medical Device Security: Implants and other medical devices that track and record patient data can endanger healthcare information. Vulnerabilities in some devices' software can lead to unauthorized access to their databases or unauthorized control over the systems. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) collaborates with the healthcare industry to improve medical device security.

Emerging Opportunities

  • Cybersecurity Investments: Investing more money into healthcare IT security can strengthen the industry's cybersecurity. These investments could save healthcare organizations money in the long term by preventing costly cyberattacks. For example, according to a 2021 CyberMDX and Philips study, the average midsize organization loses more than $45,000 per hour when it shuts down to address an attack.
  • Third-Party Risk Management: Third-party vendors can gain access to sensitive healthcare information through cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Frequent and thorough security audits that monitor connections and requests from third-party scripts could help lower risks.
  • Medical Device Upgrades: Medical devices that run outdated codes can become vulnerable to cyberattacks. Regular software updates may curb some problems, but only if device users can access these updates. For instance, automatic updates could benefit older patients lacking technical skills. Also, an organization must bolster its network security with firewalls, monitoring, and audits to protect connected devices from attacks.

Where Cyberthreats Put Healthcare at Risk

Cybersecurity can look different in various healthcare industries. Below, we examine some of the most vulnerable healthcare sectors. With high threat potential, these are top industries for cybersecurity professionals to consider pursuing.

Medical Facilities

Data breaches and ransomware attacks often target medical facilities. These cyberthreats may expose confidential medical information and can prove costly for organizations. An IBM report found that the average healthcare data breach in 2021 cost $9.23 million.

Adopting a zero-trust security policy could improve cybersecurity efforts in medical facilities. These policies add multiple layers of protection through user authentication and frequent validations to prevent unauthorized information access.

Chief information security officers are crucial to medical facility cybersecurity. These professionals oversee an organization's cybersecurity systems, processes, and teams.

Medical Equipment

According to 2022 Cynerio data, over 50% of internet-connected medical devices have vulnerabilities that may put healthcare data at risk. Default password use and outdated software are among this industry's most common security threats.

Recent FDA updates emphasize the need for a multidisciplinary approach toward medical device security. The suggested process includes targeted training and support for cybersecurity and healthcare professionals.

This sector can benefit from highly qualified security engineers to create and test medical device software, install firewalls, and expose vulnerabilities.

Pharmaceutical Companies

Cyberattacks on pharmaceutical companies can expose data and stall the production and shipment of necessary medications. For example, a 2017 malware attack on Merck halted vaccine production, losing the company more than $400 million in sales.

Like medical facilities, pharmaceutical companies may benefit from zero-trust security policies. Further improvements can come from strengthening cybersecurity teams. GlobalData reports that in quarter three of 2022, pharma increased cybersecurity hiring by 30%.

Security analysts rank among the top-employed professionals in this hiring boost. These analysts monitor an organization's networks to identify threats and stop cyberattacks.

Insurance Companies

Health insurance companies fall victim to data breaches that seek to access personal information from insurance-holders. This information includes highly sensitive data, like Social Security numbers, used for identity theft.

Moving data to cloud networks could help protect health insurance companies. Cloud computing companies often use the most robust security technology to encrypt data and may keep information safer than a company's in-house computing infrastructure can.

The health insurance sector frequently employs security directors to manage IT staff, supervise security processes, and report to chief information security officers.

Improving Security in Health-Related Industries

Several prominent healthcare-related cyberattacks have happened since 2019. These incidents show the continued need for strong cybersecurity healthcare guidance and protocols. Although cybersecurity has become more advanced with improved technology, so have healthcare cyberthreats.

CyberMDX and Philips' research suggests that cyberattacks affect midsize hospitals the most. These organizations generally spend more money and time to stop attacks than large healthcare organizations. Therefore, bolstering cybersecurity departments in small and midsize organizations could improve healthcare cybersecurity as a whole.

Cybersecurity professionals should consider working in healthcare to strengthen the industry's ability to thwart cyberattacks before they cause damage.

Several jobs come with attractive salaries and advancement opportunities. For instance, an incident manager earns an average annual salary of $96,410 as of February 2023, according to Payscale. With gained experience, average salary rises to over $117,000.

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Questions About Healthcare and Cybersecurity

  • How crucial is cybersecurity to the health and medical industries?

    An increasing number of attacks against healthcare organizations makes cybersecurity more crucial than ever. More than 40 million healthcare patient records fell vulnerable to cyberthreats in 2021 alone.

  • How do I get into healthcare cybersecurity?

    Cybersecurity healthcare jobs typically require at least a bachelor's degree in cybersecurity, computer science, or a related field. Earning a certification, such as healthcare information security and privacy practitioner, can help candidates prove their industry-related technical skills.

  • What are the biggest cyberthreats facing healthcare today?

    Ransomware attacks frequently strike hospitals and medical offices. Ransomware is a type of extortion that holds sensitive data, like medical records, at ransom for money or another purpose. Phishing and vulnerabilities in medical device security also pose significant dangers to healthcare.

  • Do most healthcare facilities have an IT security department?

    Many healthcare facilities have IT security departments to mitigate cyber risks and attacks. However, some facilities may need more cybersecurity resources, especially midsize organizations, which are the most vulnerable to attacks. Increasing funding and staffing for cybersecurity departments could help the healthcare industry strengthen its protection.

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