June 23, 2024

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Managing a Healthcare Data Breach

4 min read

By Shankar Lingam Sunnathi

Organizations are increasingly transitioning to digitally storing their data. While the switch from paper to bytes has made it more convenient to process information, it has also made sensitive information more vulnerable to security breaches. In today’s rapidly changing technological environment, the healthcare industry is facing an unprecedented challenge in protecting sensitive data against the onslaught of security attacks. According to a report by Becker’s Hospital Review, every 1 in 3 high-impact data breaches affect a healthcare system in some way or the other way. Healthcare organizations must adopt robust security measures to prevent any dire implications of cybersecurity attacks on their data.

Data breaches have severe implications and have the potential to wear out the lifeline of healthcare organizations. The financial impact of data breaches in the healthcare industry has increased exponentially in the last few years. According to IBM Security’s latest Report, “Cost of a Data Breach Report 2023”, the average cost of healthcare data breaches in 2023 was $11 million which was significantly higher than the year before that.

Challenges in managing healthcare data

There are several challenges the healthcare industry faces when it comes to efficiently managing their data. More often than not, a lack of digital hygiene practices makes data management a herculean task for healthcare providers. There are risks associated with compromising data quality during data integration processes and challenges associated with interoperability. For instance, healthcare organizations using legacy systems have to deal with heavy technological infrastructure, fragmented data and outdated data silos that hinder seamless cooperation making it difficult to track and update data changes across servers. Data storage and handling can be a challenge for workers in the healthcare industry amidst a high-pressure working environment. Lack of insight opens up cybersecurity vulnerabilities in the data structures which enables hackers to access the systems and install malware.

Additionally, ransomware breaches are a growing threat to the healthcare industry where attackers demand ransom from the affected parties in exchange for data restoration. Healthcare databases are a goldmine for attackers because they house sensitive information such as identity documents and financial details. Furthermore, the lack of cybersecurity measures on outdated legacy systems allows invaders to leverage the vulnerabilities. Such data invasions result in financial setbacks and also have the potential to tarnish business reputations.

Preventing a Breach

Implementing preventive measures lowers the risk of any cybersecurity breaches. It is imperative to have an incident response plan should any crises arise and data is compromised but it is also necessary to have measures that can effectively assist in preventing those issues in the first place. Some of these measures include maintaining healthy internet hygiene practices, evaluating existing healthcare security measures, working with reliable third-party partners specializing in data protection and management, assessing security networks regularly, investing in upgraded Health IT infrastructure, limiting data access to authorized personnel only, and educating staff on action plans for data breaches. Staying informed on the latest healthcare security policies is a requisite for ensuring compliance with regulatory bodies.

How to handle a healthcare data breach

Most Healthcare regulatory bodies mandate a cyber incident response plan for security breaches. However, many organizations lack in-depth actionable plans for when adverse situations arise. In a worst-case scenario, having a step-by-step action plan can contain the situation, preventing it from escalating any further.

The first step would include initiating the incident response plan (the action plan) after an anomaly is detected. As a next step, stalling work on the affected systems is necessary so that no further communication is compromised

After ceasing activity on impacted servers, it would be helpful to run a check on all other systems to ensure all anomalies are contained. Furthermore, checking auditing and logging systems will help in investigating the root causes to create a restoration plan.

Corrective actions must be taken once the source issue has been identified. These may involve modifying the network firewalls, upgrading anti-malware software, changing servers, etc. As a last step, it is important to disseminate information regarding the incident to all relevant teams to ensure transparency in the process and help everyone stay updated.

Conclusion

A healthcare data breach has far-reaching consequences and can cost an organization its reputation. While there are several challenges in managing healthcare data, precautionary measures and a robust action plan can assist healthcare providers in safeguarding their most important assets. Technological advancements have improved ways to strengthen cybersecurity measures but it has also opened up opportunities for attackers to leverage loopholes. While healthcare organizations must invest in new technologies, they also need to implement robust data protection measures complying with the latest regulatory guidelines to ensure their most important assets are kept secure.

 

 

(The author is Shankar Lingam Sunnathi, Senior Vice President – IT & Compliance at Omega Healthcare Management Services, and the views expressed in this article are his own)

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