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Cyberattackers find new target: healthcare. Are patients at risk?

Thanks to the massive data breaches of Equifax and other credit-reporting agencies last year, hopefully you know better than to click on that link from an unrecognized email or weird-sounding forward from a coworker. Unfortunately, all of the increased attention on cybersecurity means hackers have turned to another source of unprotected data: your health records.


In fact, the ECRI Institute, a nonprofit healthcare research organization, named cybersecurity as the number one threat to healthcare providers in 2018. The organization notes that data security often takes a back seat to more immediate patient safety concerns, such as minimizing the spread of infection. However, as the industry becomes more and more reliant on technology, it is more important than ever to shore up its digital defenses.

How cyberattacks disrupt healthcare

Unlike other types of data breaches, cyberattacks can have real life-and-death consequences in a hospital or clinic. For one thing, almost all patient health records are now stored “in the cloud” online. This makes it easier for providers to share them as needed with specialists, primary caregivers, patients, and authorized family members or guardians. Hackers can install malware (bad software) that corrupts these records, exposes them to the public or blocks access to them.

Without access to medical records, doctors, nurses and other providers must rely on paper records, which may or may not be up to date. This in turn could lead to misdiagnosis, delayed diagnoses or medication errors due to poor handwriting or miscommunication.

The same risks occur if malware targets the various networked IT systems hospitals and clinics rely on for basic patient care. In addition to disrupting communications, malware could shut down important medical equipment (like an MRI or CT scanner) or patient monitoring devices linked to the network. Supply chain records and databases used for ordering and tracking pharmaceutical drugs and medical supplies could also become corrupted, not to mention third-party services the healthcare provider may rely on for diagnostic testing or analysis.

Cybersecurity:the next frontier

Many healthcare providers have taken steps to prevent these data breaches. Even still, the number of healthcare-related cyberattacks nearly doubled in 2017, according to a report by the cyber defense firm, Cryptonite, which analyzed publicly available information collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The top six breaches recorded by the HHS were all the result of ransomware, software that locks users out of an application, network or computer system until the user pays the hacker a specified amount of money.

Obviously, such tactics can have drastic consequences for patient care. Unless healthcare providers do more to protect their digital borders, it’s possible more medical malpractice claims will involve complications caused by a cyberattack.

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