May 10, 2018
The intervention of technology has brought about a paradigm shift for the healthcare industry. Digitization has resulted in a lightyear-leap in the progress of the healthcare operations and the industry is all set to continue to evolve.
This digital transformation in healthcare in recent years has led to a never-before level of convenience and benefits to the patients in various aspects including diagnosis, consultation, treatment, medication etc.. They even have the medical help available on their mobile today.
However, with the evolution of technology in the healthcare sector, there is a growing need for a secured technology infrastructure as well because this development also brings along a few matters requiring serious attention such as data breach threats. Connected devices are generating copious amount of varied patient data every single minute and that data is not limited to a computer today. The healthcare organizations are moving to cloud for better management of this large amount of data. Moreover, the patients can also access their profiles on their mobile handsets. Thus, the infrastructure of the organization crosses the internal zones and reaches public internet connections. This makes the threats of data breach come looming too as the smarter attackers are striving to gain access to the colossal datasets.
With the advancement in technology infrastructure, the nature of threats is evolving too and therefore what was a hit yesterday to curb technology threats is proving to be a complete fail. Traditional methods are absolutely incapable of addressing these advanced and sophisticated security-attacks. One major reason among several reasons for this growing risk is that the healthcare organizations are not giving as much importance to their network security as to the technology infrastructure. This negligence only augments the risk of data privacy and security and this will continue to be a grave threat unless the organizations start allocating due funds and attention for security investment.
Not that there is nothing happening to fight and defeat data-attacks. Organizations are taking strong steps check the breaches and keep the infrastructure secure. But before we go threat, let us first understand in detail why these attacks are considered so vicious.
Healthcare operation comprises a considerably longer value chain than most of the industries. There are several crucial steps and stages involved and all need to be interconnected all the time to ensure an uninterrupted flow of operations.
Technology has brought all these stages and processes even closer and thanks to the internet of things (IoT), they can consistently communicate with each other without unnecessary human intervention. From patient history to consultation to diagnosis to treatment, various instruments are continuously generating and capturing a large amount of patients’ personal data and sharing with each other for medical purposes. Therefore, the risks associated with the patient data are high and threatening because even a single breach in one device or cloud can open several datasets and leak a series of data.
Okay, while this is understood, what could be the repercussions of a data breach. Is it that serious?
Well, it is. There can be severe consequences if the data pertaining to the patients is leaked. After all, we are talking about the personal information of a large number of people getting stolen. Let us look at a few possible impacts.
a. There is a bigger loss involved in a medical identity theft than what catches the eye in the first instance. A medical identity, in fact, presents a complete picture of the personal profile of an individual which includes one’s ailment, treatment, medication, allergies, prescriptions etc.
b. If the above does not sound as bad, it also means the leak of social security number, healthcare ID, address, contact details, employment details, income etc. This does sound serious now.
c. In certain cases, the theft or breach could lead to a social stigma. People suffering from ailments such as STDs may not be comfortable sharing their medical profiles with anyone. In such scenario, the embarrassment can cause a lot of mental struggles to the patient.
d. Stealing and fudging with the medical profiles can also introduce disturbances in the ongoing and future courses of treatment and cause significant delays in treatment. Moreover, it can also lead to inaccurate treatment. So data breach can also result in a direct threat to a patient’s health.
e. Importantly, this falls as a bad name and trustworthiness on the part of the medical center or hospital. Such breaches form strong perception in people’s minds against its effectiveness and reputation.
Clearly, data privacy and security needs to be a superior concern for the healthcare industry as its repercussions could be severe if the threats are not checked in time.
Many leading healthcare organizations have started to sense the gravity of this situations and invest in the security of their network and technology infrastructure. Below are a few key examples.
1. Globally, organizations have realized the need to create a robust security system by using a multifactor authentication or MFA. This password-enabled multistep mechanism manages the control of the access.
2. Since these days the data as jumped from the computers to clouds, the encryption approaches should follow the suit too. Encrypted clouds have proven to be an effective measure to curb cyber-attacks.
3. As the hacker go smarter and their attacks become more innovative in nature, healthcare organizations are aiming at reviewing their security mechanisms and revamping and re-prioritizing their IT security toolsets.
4. The practice of auditing the access history related to the patient records has been insightful and helped the organization control the inappropriate or unauthorized accesses and retain high privacy and security standards.
5. Bring Your Own Key (BYOK) has been another preventive and effective measure to address cyber-attacks and data-thefts. With BYOK, the organizations can encrypt their data in the cloud and manage and control the encryption solely from their end.
6. DevSecOps, a new-age approach, has been able to address the data breaches that remained potential 7. challenges to standard DevOps or cloud processes. Using DevSecOps, the security processes can be integrated earlier in the development lifecycle.
While electronic health records, mobile technologies, IoT etc. are transforming the healthcare processes, outdated systems, traditional security framework and insecure hospital networks giving way to increase data breaches. Since protected health information(PHI) is a sensitive data, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly known as HIPAA, requires all the healthcare organizations to keep patient data protection on priority.
Under HIPAA, these organizations are supposed to have in place a comprehensive security framework for PHI and ensure that the PHI is only available to the authorized people. The organization should provide restricted access to ePHI, available only when it is appropriate. Also, the employees dealing with ePHI should be given proper training on security procedures. Besides, there should be a periodic assessment of the security procedures with respect to HIPAA requirements.
The act encourages the healthcare associates to adopt cloud-based emailing solutions which can be easily deployed in the existing infrastructure and enhance the functionality of the communication systems.
The Health Information Trust Alliance or HITRUST is another such regulatory benchmark. With its common security framework or CSW, the act attempts to offer an easy roadmap for the healthcare organizations to follow security and privacy regulations. Similarly, the Health Information Technology for Economic And Clinical Health (HITECH) comes with stringent liabilities on non-compliance and pushes further the applicability of information security protection of HIPAA.
As electronic transactions and information exchange are a rising norm in the healthcare industry, HIPAA makes it mandatory for the organizations to implement secure communications and data sharing. They should ensure that any new solution should follow the following conditions –
a. The solutions should be sustainably integrated into the existing IT infrastructure. It should also be checked if any additional requirements are essential for a seamless deployment.
b. HIPAA requires all the authorized professionals to electronically sign the documents to keep them secure. Also, all the communications must be tracked and protected throughout the process to ensure HIPAA compliance.
c. It should be convenient for the users to share exchange large medical files with existing applications.
d. Additionally, the organizations should also ascertain that same is extended to mobile devices as well.
However, HIPAA does not intend to make it a costly and complex affair for the organizations. It suggests them to ascertain that the solutions can be easily integrated with the existing set-up. These healthcare compliance acts increase the patient data protection liability for the organizations while enhancing the functionality, and establish and encourage a culture of transparency.
It is evident that there is a lot of movement in the healthcare industry when it comes to maintaining data privacy and security for the medical records of the patients. However, there are a few crucial recommendations to ensure the sustainability and efficacy of data security models.
a. Similar to how it is in the pharmaceutical companies, there is a need for a common language and industry standards in the entire healthcare industry so as to maintain a uniformity and consistency across the board.
b. To prevent an eleventh-hour review, the organizations should periodically conduct ongoing assessments to identify threats and risks and take a corrective measure accordingly.
c. The employees should undergo comprehensive training programs to spread awareness, familiarity and education among them pertaining to data security threats.
d. Machines learning can be leveraged to set up proactive mechanisms to train the smart devices to decipher complex data and trends to test the network and anticipate possible threats.
e. IT security is a complex system and manual handling leaves a big room for human-errors which is the reason for most of the data security breaches. Automating data security tasks will ensure safer and more accurate operations.
These recommendations can reinforce the security measures and help in minimizing the data security threats.
By and large, data breach is a serious threat and can cost an organization in multiple ways and sometimes irreversibly. While many organizations have started to address this grave concern, most of them are still not equipped with the capabilities to handle severe attacks. For an industry as big as healthcare, it is imperative to maintain high standards of privacy and security with rapid digital transformation in healthcare. Investment in data security is not a value-addition but an indispensable need for the healthcare organizations today.