Treating health care's cyber ills

To help health care organizations improve the security and safety of patients, the Department of Health and Human Services has issued new guidance on practices that can cost-effectively reduce cybersecurity risks.

"Health Industry Cybersecurity Practices (HICP): Managing Threats and Protecting Patients" is being marketed by HHS as a starter kit for both IT and non-IT health care professionals to improve baseline cybersecurity. The guidelines are meant to give "practical, understandable, implementable, industry-led, and consensus-based voluntary cybersecurity guidelines" to "local clinics, regional hospital systems, [and] large health care systems," HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan said.

The publication focuses on some of the most common attack vectors used to compromise health care organizations (email phishing, ransomware, data breaches, insider threats and targeted attacks against connected medical devices) and provides basic best practices on how to identify and mitigate each threat.

The size of an organization is one of the most "critical" cybersecurity variables, according to the report. Smaller practices tend to have fewer dedicated IT and cybersecurity staff but operate in a significantly less complex IT environment. Medium and large organizations tend to have more resources at their disposal but are bigger targets, more dispersed geographically, share information with more partners and operate in highly complex IT environments that widen the attack surface for hackers.

The publication includes two technical volumes geared for IT and security professionals with resources and templates they can use to assess their own cybersecurity posture as well develop policies and procedures.

The guidance is voluntary for all organizations and draws heavily from the Cybersecurity Framework developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The health care sector continues to be an attractive target for hackers, where a lack of cybersecurity standards, a proliferation of internet-connected devices and a longstanding industry push to digitize health records have together provided plenty of opportunity for data theft and disruption.

Approximately one-quarter of computers infected with the notorious SamSam ransomware virus in 2018 were health organizations and healthcare was "by far the most targeted sector" in the attacks, according to cybersecurity company Symantec.

Additionally, the rising value of health information makes recovering from a serious data breach prohibitively expensive. A 2018 study conducted by the Ponemon Institute and underwritten by IBM found that health care organizations lose about $408 for every document lost or stolen in a data breach, far more than any other sector and nearly twice as much as the second most expensive sector, financial services, at $206 per document.

Vulnerabilities discovered in connected medical devices such as pacemakers and insulin pumps have also alarmed some lawmakers and regulators. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration released updated technical guidance for health technology vendors, but an inspector general report issued in November 2018 said the agency still hadn't "sufficiently assessed medical device cybersecurity" or developed recall procedures for vulnerable devices once they've hit the market.

Several bills designed to bolster cybersecurity requirements for Internet-connected medical devices were introduced in the last session of Congress, though none passed.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Pandemic tests electronic records management

    Between the rush enable more virtual collaboration, stalled digitization of archived records and managing records that reside in datasets, records management executives are sorting through new challenges.

  • boy learning at home (Travelpixs/

    Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

Stay Connected