Why rural facilities need a strategic blueprint to fortify cyber defenses

Travis Tidwell highlights the critical need for enhanced cybersecurity measures amid rising threats from bad actors.

Rural regions often lack nearby healthcare options, unlike urban areas, where medical facilities are easily accessible. With some rural areas depending on a lone hospital situated more than 100 miles away, a cyberattack on such a facility could deprive thousands of patients of healthcare, which can have fatal consequences.

Presently, concerns are escalating as healthcare organizations and hospitals grapple with increasingly sophisticated cyber threats.

Cyberattacks on healthcare institutions are becoming increasingly frequent and sophisticated, posing a significant threat to patient privacy and safety. The HIPAA Journal reported that 395 healthcare data breaches had occurred by the end of July 2023, compromising the records of nearly 60 million people.

A report from the HHS 405(d) Program, a collaboration between The Health Sector Coordinating Council and the federal government to align healthcare industry security practices, found that the top five cybersecurity threats to medical facilities are social engineering, ransomware, loss or theft of equipment, accidental data loss, insider threats and attacks on network-connected medical devices.

Cyberattacks can also have a devastating financial impact on healthcare organizations. IBM's latest Cost of a Data Breach report revealed that the average global cost of a data breach reached $4.45 million in 2023, up 2.3 percent from 2022. In the healthcare sector, the average cost of a data breach in 2023 soared to $10.93 million, the highest among all industries. By contrast, pharmaceutical organizations faced an average cost of $4.82 million.

In addition, if hospitals in rural areas collaborate with pharmaceutical companies in clinical trials or share data with external partners, a cyberattack on one hospital could have cascading effects on partner and clinical trial systems. Simultaneously, attacks on partner networks can quickly spread, impacting connected hospitals. The healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors heavily rely on technology and interconnected systems to deliver essential services. A single attack on a hospital can compromise an entire network, affecting healthcare providers, pharmaceutical research partners, manufacturers, and, critically, patients.

The severity and potential repercussions of cyberattacks on healthcare organizations underscore the dire consequences of inadequate cybersecurity. The vast repositories of sensitive patient data, encompassing medical records, insurance details and personal identifiers, coupled with the critical services offered, make healthcare institutions prime targets. While increased network connectivity provides a competitive advantage, it simultaneously enlarges the attack surface that must be defended against both cybercriminals and the potential for human error.

The perils of insufficient cybersecurity

Inadequate cybersecurity risks data breaches, exposing private patient information and enabling medical identity theft and financial fraud. Hackers may manipulate stolen identities for unauthorized medical services, prescription drugs or insurance benefits, causing inaccurate medical records and inappropriate treatment. Unauthorized access to medical systems poses a direct threat to patient safety, especially during emergencies or public health crises.

Ransomware can paralyze healthcare operations by encrypting patient records, causing downtime and increased costs. Simultaneously, distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks can disrupt services, impacting patient care and risking non-compliance with regulations like HIPAA, leading to fines. Data breaches erode patient-doctor confidentiality, undermining trust in healthcare providers, tarnishing reputations, and resulting in patient loss and revenue decline.

Insufficient cybersecurity also affects critical healthcare supply vendors, compromising healthcare systems and patient care. Collaborations with pharmaceutical companies in research and development make network attacks potentially disastrous. Compromised pharmaceutical systems can lead to the theft of valuable research data, halting drug trials and impeding innovation.

Using robust cybersecurity practices

Safeguarding rural healthcare and pharmaceutical networks is an ongoing commitment that demands a holistic cybersecurity approach extending beyond conventional IT systems. This involves a combination of technical solutions, employee education and a dedication to staying abreast of evolving cyber threats. The following steps provide a solid foundation for implementing robust cybersecurity hygiene practices.

Network asset assessment. Conduct a comprehensive assessment of the entire network to gain insights into the current attack surface, identify asset vulnerabilities, including obsolete hardware or software, potential cyberattack entry points, existing infrastructure weaknesses and any regulatory compliance gaps.

Develop a risk management plan. Based on the assessment, craft a detailed risk management plan outlining specific risks, their potential impact, and mitigation strategies. Prioritize risks based on severity and likelihood of occurrence. Regularly test and update this plan, ensuring it includes strategies for prompt detection, response and recovery from cybersecurity incidents.

Adopt appropriate security protocols. Maintain business continuity by implementing robust network security capabilities, addressing risks across an attack continuum. This typically involves deploying firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems, and conducting regular network monitoring. Ensure that all network-connected devices and systems are consistently patched and updated to address known vulnerabilities.

Invest in staff training. Educate healthcare and pharmaceutical staff on cybersecurity best practices and emphasize the importance of adhering to security protocols. Given that human error is a common cause of security breaches, ongoing education is paramount.

Deploy proactive monitoring tools. Implement continuous monitoring tools to achieve network visibility, enabling real-time detection of anomalies and potential threats. Proactive monitoring facilitates the identification and response to threats before they cause substantial harm. Collaboration between healthcare organizations, pharmaceutical partners, and government agencies is crucial for sharing information on emerging threats and cybersecurity best practices.

Always have a back-up plan. Regularly back up critical data and systems and establish a robust disaster recovery plan to ensure swift restoration of operations in the event of a cyberattack.

Ensure stringent access and verification control. Implement secure remote access solutions, such as virtual private networks and multi-factor authentication, especially with the increasing prevalence of telemedicine and remote work. Enforce strong access controls, incorporating role-based access controls to restrict access to sensitive systems and data to authorized personnel only.

Ensure that data is encrypted. Employ data encryption, both in transit and at rest, to help protect patient records, pharmaceutical research data and proprietary information. This serves as a deterrent against unauthorized access, even if data is intercepted.

Conduct regular security audits. Maintain compliance with industry-specific regulations and standards by conducting regular security audits. This includes assessing network cybersecurity and evaluating the practices of supply chain partners, third-party vendors and contractors with network access. Monitor vendor standards to ensure alignment with security protocols.

Cybersecurity is a senior-level concern for healthcare institutions and pharmaceutical partners. The stakes are just too high to overlook. By implementing protective measures that encompass both IT and OT network security design, organizations can minimize operational disruptions, mitigate risks, protect patient and research data, and uphold their reputation.

Travis Tidwell, CSSE, is the business development lead for network infrastructure and security services at Rockwell Automation.

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