Large Health Facilities Have Major Patient Data Security Issues

Many healthcare organizations have security holes that leave not only their systems, but their equipment susceptible to cyberattacks, according to two recent studies.

The researchers included Scott Erven, head of information security for multi-state hospital and clinic chain Essentia Health, and Shawn Merdinger, an independent consultant. According to iHealthBeat, the two presented their findings last week at the Shakacon conference.

Erven and his colleagues conducted a two-year study addressing the security of Essentia’s medical equipment. As part of their study they found that hackers could manipulate dosages of drugs provided by drug infusion pumps, deliver random defibrillator shock to patients or prevent medically needed shocks from taking place, and change the temperature settings in refrigerators holding blood and drugs.

The research team also looked for exposed equipment within other healthcare organizations, and the results were appalling. Within only 30 minutes, iHealthBeat notes, they found one healthcare organization which had 68,000 devices that exposed data.  Across all of the health systems they studied, they found 488 exposed cardiology systems, 323 PACS systems, 32 pacemaker systems, 21 anesthesiology systems and and several telemetry systems used to monitor elderly patients and prevent infant abductions.

Both Erven and Merdinger found that the organizations are leaking data because an Internet-connected computer had not been configured securely. Typically, data leaks occurred because sys admins had allowed Server Message Block –a protocol used to help admins find and communicate with computers internally — and allowed it to broadcast information turning private data into publicly-accessible data.

According to Erven, these issues are “global” and impact thousands of healthcare organizations. He suggests that too often, healthcare organizations focus on HIPAA compliance and don’t put enough effort into penetration testing and vulnerability protection.

This should come as no surprise. After all, Proficio’s Takeshi Suganuma notes, HIPAA was developed to protect PHI for a wide range of organizations, and as he puts it, “one size seldom fits all.”  While HIPAA compliance is important, collection, analysis and monitoring of security events are also critical activities for medium- to large-sized organizations, Suganuma suggests.

He also warns that healthcare organizations should be aware that cyberattackers are exploiting not only traditional network vulnerabilities, but also vulnerabilities in printers and medical devices. Networked medical devices are a particularly significant issue, since provider IT teams can’t upgrade the underlying operating system embedded in these devices — and too many of the devices are using older versions of Windows and Linux with known security holes.

The key point Suganuma, Erven and Merdinger are making is that while HIPAA compliance is good, healthcare organizations must pay greater attention to new attack vectors, or they face high odds of security compromise.  Seems like there’s a lot of work (and investment) afoot.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.