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Cybersecurity breaches and attacks in the healthcare sector are very high stakes. Healthcare information is among the most sensitive personal data and that makes safeguarding it an imperative for providers. Ransomware attacks, which are on the rise, can disrupt patient care, delay essential surgeries, and send healthcare networks into chaos.

In this article we’re exploring the nature of cyber threats in the healthcare sector, as well as outlining a handful of practical tips for ways operators can enhance security to reduce risk.

The evolving cybersecurity problem in healthcare

Over the past two decades, healthcare systems have gradually become increasingly digitized. From the perspective of the improvements to quality of patient care greater digitization affords, this is undoubtedly a positive development. Digitization enables better workflow within an institution, facilitates communication between providers, and gives patients greater access and transparency when it comes to their own personal health records.

However, as systems have become more digitized they have simultaneously also become tantalizing targets for cyber criminals. There are more opportunities for attacks, and workflows face disruptions that can be life or death when an attack does occur. Cyber attacks can be financially devastating for any company, but when healthcare systems are attacked the stakes are much higher because human lives are on the line.

Precisely because the stakes are so high, ransomware attacks are alluring for aspiring cyber criminals who know that healthcare providers are likely to pay up to minimize the impact on patient care. The vulnerabilities of healthcare systems were put on full display by the WannaCry attack that temporarily brought the UK’s National Health Service to its knees in 2017.

More and more connected devices are also coming to the market, providing more targets for attack. These devices are vulnerable to being hijacked by bad actors and protecting their security is fundamental to the cybersecurity protocol for healthcare operators.

How healthcare providers can begin to address cyber threats

With an understanding of what makes healthcare systems particularly vulnerable to cyber threats, let’s take a look at what steps operators can take to enhance their protection against such attacks.

Assess the risks

It’s essential to gain an understanding of all the risks any given provider is facing. Doing this necessitates inventorying and categorizing all of the different networks and systems in use, which can be a herculean task in and of itself depending on the scale of operations.

From such an assessment the organization can develop a list of cybersecurity priorities that addresses the most urgent needs first. Engaging help from cybersecurity professionals during this process is essential to being able to complete a thorough and informed accounting.

Engage artificial intelligence

Particularly for large providers, the volume of attempted attacks can be significant -- so significant, in fact, that it would be impossible for a human or team of humans to efficiently sift through them to identify the most serious or pressing ones. Attacks also often go undetected for long periods of time, which means the damage can be devastating by the time they are eventually identified.

This is one area where artificial intelligence can play an important role. Healthcare providers can use AI to monitor threats and identify the ones that need immediate attention. It can also help providers detect attacks earlier, minimizing the extent of the damage and accelerating recovery efforts. Active monitoring with AI is one of the most effective prophylactic measures healthcare providers can take to guard against cyberattacks.

Inform and empower staff

By necessity enhanced cybersecurity adds complexity to any system. This complexity will inevitably inconvenience staff and clinicians, and as such may be met with resistance. But a little bit of inconvenience in the short term is what helps prevent major headaches in the long run.

It’s up to leadership teams to commit to cybersecurity, and to communicate to their employees why enhanced measures help safeguard patients and practitioners. Comprehensive training on how to recognize and avoid things like phishing attempts should also be part of the equation.

Takeaways

The sensitive nature of personal health data and the life-or-death ramifications of ransomware attacks make healthcare systems appealing targets for cyber criminals. Healthcare operators should undertake cybersecurity assessments to identify vulnerabilities, deploy AI technology where available, and train staff on the importance of cybersecurity in order to reduce the risk of successful attacks and data breaches.