Protecting Sensitive Patient Information: Cybersecurity in Health Care

The healthcare industry faces unique cybersecurity challenges due to the sensitive nature of patient data. Health providers maintain troves of sensitive health information and personal details, making them a prime target for cybercriminals seeking to steal data or sabotage systems. At the same time, they often have limited resources to invest heavily in cybersecurity, as their focus remains on providing quality care.

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The tips in this blog describe some ways to reduce the risk of health information breaches, but none of these measures can be effective unless the healthcare practice fully commits to and enforces them. Strong data protection policies and procedures are necessary, but more is needed. Organizations must prioritize cybersecurity, invest in resources, and commit to a culture that elevates change from the top down bottom up.

Foster a Culture of Security Awareness

The user is the weakest point in any computer system environment; hence, establishing a security culture is a critical step in maintaining cybersecurity in any organization, especially in the health care industry where sensitive patient information is at risk. A security culture means creating an environment where everyone takes responsibility for protecting information and understands the importance of cybersecurity. This involves educating and training employees on best practices, setting a good example from management, and making accountability and responsibility for information security core values of the organization. By establishing a security culture, organizations can build habits and practices that are automatic, making it easier to prevent cyber attacks and protect sensitive data. Ensuring the protection of patients through effective information security measures should be just as instinctive to the healthcare organization as maintaining cleanliness and hygiene.

Mobile Devices Security

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Mobile device security is a critical aspect of maintaining cybersecurity within the healthcare sector. As laptops and handheld devices are often used in public settings, it is essential to take extra measures to prevent unauthorized access to electronic health records. If the mobile devices do not have robust authentication and access controls, additional steps must be taken to ensure their security from potential unauthorized use or viewing. Laptops should have password protection similar to the tips mentioned in Tip 8, while many handheld devices can have password protection enabled when available. In the absence of password protection, extra precautions must be taken to secure electronic health information on the handheld device, including strict physical control over the device. By implementing these measures, healthcare organizations can safeguard sensitive patient information on mobile devices.

Cybersecurity experts highly recommend encrypting electronic health information on mobile devices when it is deemed necessary. Mobile devices that cannot support encryption should not be utilized. Encrypted devices are easily accessible and are available at a lower cost than responding to a data breach. If it is necessary to remove a laptop containing electronic health information from a secure area, the information on the laptop’s hard drive should be protected through encryption.

Software and Operating System Maintenance

In order to maintain security and add new features, most software requires regular updates. These updates can be distributed in various ways such as automated downloads and customer-requested downloads by vendors. It is crucial to keep software up-to-date as updates often address newly discovered vulnerabilities in the product. In larger enterprises, updating software can be a daily task, with multiple vendors issuing frequent updates. However, smaller practices may not have the resources to continually monitor for new updates and apply them promptly. In such cases, automating updates to occur weekly (e.g., using Microsoft Windows Automatic Update) may be a better option. Nonetheless, practices should be vigilant for critical and urgent patches and updates that require immediate attention. Any messages received from vendors regarding these patches and updates should be monitored and acted upon as soon as possible.

Data wiping, also known as data erasure or sanitation of computer data, is the process of permanently and securely deleting all data from a computer or storage device. This process is crucial in safeguarding sensitive information from unauthorized access and theft, particularly when disposing of old or unused computers and storage devices. Sanitation of computer data should involve thoroughly wiping all hard drives, flash drives, and other storage devices to ensure that all data is permanently removed and cannot be recovered. Different methods exist for data wiping, including software-based wiping tools, hardware wiping tools, and physical destruction of the storage device. It is essential to select a method that fulfills the necessary security standards and requirements and to establish a clear process for sanitizing computer data as part of regular data management practices. To avoid the possibility of an unintended data breach, follow the guidelines for disposal found in the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology at the U.S. Department of Commerce) “Guidelines for Media Sanitation

Strong Password and Two-factor authentication

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A strong password is the first line of defense against unauthorized access to your accounts and systems. It should be at least 8 characters long and include a mix of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. Avoid using easily guessable information such as your name, birthdate, or common words. Instead, try using a phrase or combination of random words and numbers. Additionally, it is important to regularly change your passwords to maintain the security of your accounts. Strong passwords should not include:

  • Personal information: This includes your name, birthdate, address, phone number, and any other information that can be easily guessed or obtained.
  • Common words: Avoid using common words found in the dictionary, as these can be easily cracked by hackers using a brute-force attack.
  • Simple sequences: This includes sequences of numbers, such as “123456”, or patterns, such as “qwerty”.
  • Repeated characters: Using the same character repeatedly, such as “aaaaaa”, makes your password easier to guess.
  • Dates: Avoid using dates, such as your birthday, as this information can often be found on social media.

Two-factor authentication (2FA) adds an extra layer of security by requiring a user to provide two forms of identification. After entering a password, the user will receive a one-time code sent to their smartphone, which must be entered to access the account or system. This helps prevent unauthorized access, even if a password is stolen or compromised.

In the healthcare industry, the protection of sensitive patient information is of utmost importance. By using strong passwords and 2FA, healthcare workers can help ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of patient information. I strongly encourage all healthcare workers to adopt these security measures to reduce the risk of cyber attacks and protect patient information.

Anti-Virus Software

Viruses and other malicious codes that exploit vulnerabilities on a computer are the primary means by which attackers compromise computers in small offices. The pervasive nature of the computing environment implies that these vulnerabilities are prevalent. Even if a computer has all the latest security updates for its operating system and applications, it may still be vulnerable due to previously undetected flaws. In addition, seemingly harmless external sources such as CDs, email, flash drives, and web downloads can infect computers. Therefore, a product that provides continuously updated protection is essential. Anti-virus software is readily available, reliable, and relatively inexpensive. Follow here for, The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC),, Anti-virus checklist

The symptoms of an infected computer can vary depending on the type of malware or virus that has infected the system. However, some common symptoms include:

  • Slow performance: The computer may run slowly or take longer to boot up and shut down.
  • Unusual pop-ups: The computer may display pop-ups or advertisements even when not browsing the web.
  • Changes to the homepage or default search engine: The homepage or default search engine may change without the user’s knowledge.
  • Unusual error messages: The computer may display error messages or crash frequently.
  • Unusual network behavior: The computer may attempt to connect to unfamiliar websites or send large amounts of data over the network.
  • New toolbars or programs installed: The computer may have new toolbars or programs installed without the user’s knowledge.
  • Antivirus software is disabled: The antivirus software may have been disabled or is no longer working

Physical Access

The healthcare industry faces new challenges when it comes to protecting sensitive patient information. While cyber threats are a significant concern, it is also important to consider the physical security of computer systems and other devices that contain sensitive information. In this blog, we will explore the importance of physical security in the healthcare industry and provide tips for securing computer systems and other devices.

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Physical security refers to the measures in place to protect computer systems, networks, and data centers from unauthorized access, theft, damage, or tampering. In the healthcare industry, this includes everything from laptops, tablets, and handheld devices, to servers and storage systems. With so much sensitive patient information stored on these devices, it is essential to have measures in place to prevent unauthorized access or tampering.

Here are a few tips to help healthcare organizations secure their physical computer systems:

  • Secure data centers: Data centers are the heart of any organization’s IT infrastructure. They should be located in secure areas, such as locked rooms or cabinets, and have restricted access. In addition, data centers should be equipped with fire suppression systems, backup power supplies, and environmental controls to ensure the safety of the equipment and data stored within.
  • Lockdown laptops: Laptops are portable and can easily be lost or stolen. To prevent unauthorized access, laptops should be locked with a strong password and encrypted to protect sensitive information. They should also be stored in a secure location when not in use.
  • Use security cameras: Security cameras can help deter theft and provide a record of who has access to computer systems and data centers. In addition, cameras can provide evidence in the event of a security breach or theft.
  • Train employees: Employee training is an essential aspect of physical security. Employees should be trained on the importance of securing computer systems and the steps they can take to prevent unauthorized access or theft.

Cybersecurity is a critical concern for the healthcare industry. With the increasing use of technology and the storage of sensitive patient information on computer systems and other devices, it is essential for healthcare organizations to take proactive measures to protect against cyber threats. This includes establishing strong passwords, implementing two-factor authentication, and regularly updating software to ensure that systems are secure. Physical security is also essential, as it helps prevent unauthorized access to computer systems and data centers. By taking these steps, healthcare organizations can ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of patient information and provide peace of mind to both patients and staff members. Cybersecurity is an ongoing process, and healthcare organizations must stay vigilant and adapt their strategies as new threats emerge. With the right measures in place, healthcare organizations can ensure that sensitive patient information remains secure and protected.