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Healthcare Data Security: 7 Tips for Securing Patient Data

Posted on March 1st, 2021

For the healthcare industry, the collection of patient data can not only be used to monitor patient health over time, but also to drive important research that can benefit the industry as a whole. Especially as cyberattacks on healthcare organizations rise in volume and sophistication, organizations need to be thinking of the steps they can take to ensure critical patient data is being effectively protected from evolving threats.

Healthcare data security is also a critical component of maintaining compliance with industry regulations such as HIPAA, HITECH, HHS, and PCI. Without the proper security controls in place, healthcare organizations run the risk of exposing extremely sensitive information and putting it into the hands of dangerous cyber adversaries, which can result in significant financial, legal, and reputational harm. As the industry continues to leverage digital transformation, a cybersecurity risk management program is more essential than ever to healthcare organizations looking to keep their patient data protected.

What is data security in healthcare?

Healthcare data security is a critical component of an effective cybersecurity risk management program. The healthcare industry collects and stores what is virtually an endless flow of essential patient data, and cybercriminals are finding new ways to exploit the confidential nature of this information. Comprehensive healthcare data security ensures that a patient’s protected health information (PHI) is being securely maintained.

HIPAA

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 is a law that requires healthcare providers to maintain compliance with various regulations. The HIPAA Privacy Rule, “address[es] the use and disclosure of individuals’ health information,” and “contains standards for individuals’ rights to understand and control how their health information is used.”

Regulatory compliance standards are growing in number and becoming stricter as data privacy concerns rise. For the healthcare industry, regulations such as HIPAA cannot be overlooked. These standards should instead act as a framework through which an organization builds its risk management program.

Why is data security important in healthcare?

The collection of healthcare patient data can help drive health research efforts, but it also presents unique security challenges. According to the Ponemon 2020 Cost of a Data Breach Report, the average cost of a data breach for healthcare organizations has reached an average of $7.13 million, up by more than 10% from the previous year. With the consequences of poor cyber risk management in healthcare on the rise, data security is crucial to allowing organizations to take advantage of patient data without compromising data privacy and security.

How to protect healthcare patient data

The threat landscape is quickly evolving, and the healthcare industry must be prepared to secure critical patient data as their networks grow in complexity. Explore these key considerations for how to best protect healthcare patient data:

1. Limit and track access to sensitive assets and information

With access to some of the most critical patient data, healthcare organizations should implement limited access controls. This ensures that only those who absolutely need it to carry out their job function will have access to certain types of data. Methods such as zero trust security operate on the belief that no one in the organization should be inherently trusted with full access. By limiting and tracking access to important information, security teams can more easily pinpoint unauthorized users and determine who may be the root cause of an issue.

2. Employee training

As organizations continue to move to remote work models, some on a permanent basis, employees are increasingly being targeted by cybercriminals while at home. Employees should be trained on general cybersecurity concepts and common threats or social engineering tactics to be aware of. This can help proactively cut down on vulnerabilities and stop threats before they lead to larger issues.

3. Ongoing risk assessments

Cybersecurity risk assessments are a way for healthcare organizations to analyze their existing security controls and gain a comprehensive understanding of their ability to effectively respond to and remediate threats. Cybersecurity assessments are conducted within the context of an organization’s business objectives so security teams can find any weaknesses and begin putting the controls in place to secure critical data. There are several risk assessment frameworks that organizations can use, including the NIST Cybersecurity Framework and ISO 27000. For the healthcare industry, compliance with regulatory standards such as HIPAA can also be used to drive future security strategies.

4. Monitor insider threats and third-party vendors

As the healthcare industry continues to embrace digital transformation and take advantage of contractors and third-party vendors, these insider threats cannot be overlooked when building a risk management program. More often than not, these organizations will have access to some of your company’s most sensitive data. If a data breach occurs as a result of a third- or fourth-party vendors’ actions or negligence, your organization will be held liable. It’s critical to continuously monitor third-party vendors and the security controls they have in place, much like you would for your own organization.

5. Leverage cybersecurity threat intelligence

The threat landscape is continuously evolving, a key to staying on top of and even ahead of emerging threats is cybersecurity threat intelligence. Threat intelligence can provide context around new or existing threats, indicators, implications, and more. Organizations can leverage threat intelligence to gain a holistic view of the evolving threats facing the healthcare industry, and the best practices for responding based on what has or hasn’t worked.

6. Secure IoMT devices

The healthcare industry is rapidly undergoing digital transformations, and as a result, many Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) devices have entered the market. While these devices enable capabilities like remote patient management and improved monitoring for medication adherence, they also open healthcare organizations up to a new world of threats as more devices than ever are connected to the internet. Security teams will need to stay ahead of this by proactively updating these devices with all available patches, and ensuring thorough authentication processes have been put in place.

7. Encrypt sensitive patient data

A common data protection method for healthcare organizations is encryption, which is an added layer of security that cybercriminals will have to penetrate to gain access to data. Patient data should be encrypted in transit as well as at rest to ensure compliance with HIPAA security rules and other relevant standards.

How SecurityScorecard can help secure healthcare patient data

Digital transformation has created many opportunities for healthcare organizations to optimize efficiency, streamline the user experience, and more. It has also created new opportunities for cybercriminals to take advantage of sensitive patient data. With SecurityScorecard, clinicians and other healthcare organizations can continuously monitor cyberhealth across their IT ecosystem.

By gaining an outside-in view of their own cybersecurity posture as well as that of any third-party vendors, organizations can identify weaknesses in their existing controls and report on healthcare data security, this will in turn help to guide future data-driven decision-making about how to maintain strong cyber hygiene. Additionally, healthcare organizations can ensure automated compliance with regulatory standards such as HIPAA, HITECH, HHS, and PCI.

As the healthcare industry continues to drive innovation, healthcare data security must be a priority. With a platform like SecurityScorecard, security teams can stay ahead of emerging threats and keep patients protected.

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