HIPAA Audits and Ransomware

Unfortunately for medical practices the transition and reliance on digital patient records have brought with it a new set of problems. Between hackers stealing patient data or holding it for ransom with ransomware and the increased chances of a HIPAA audit, smaller medical practices run the risk of being forced to close down.

In 2011, during the Phase 1 round of HIPAA audits, the Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) found that a large number of medical facilities did not perform any type of comprehensive risk assessment. It shouldn’t be any surprise that there have been heftier fines and stricter policy enforcement after these finding, considering the Office of the Inspector General criticized the OCR for not investigating and monitoring data breaches and facilities that were found to violate federal privacy laws.

So far 2016 has been a rough year for healthcare organizations. The OCR is sending out tens of thousands of emails to gather the contact information of data security officers at hospitals and other facilities around the country. Earlier in the year, two healthcare providers reached multimillion dollar settlements for having two unencrypted laptops stolen.

To make matters worse, there has been a 35 percent increase in ransomware attacks where hackers encrypt a victim’s files until they pay money to have them unlocked over the same time last year. In February, the staff at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles was forced into reverting back to pen and paper after being locked out of their records due to malware. They only regained access to their files after paying $17,000 in ransom.

Medical organizations are high priority targets for hackers due to all the person information they keep on patients. More importantly these facilities more often than not don’t take the most basic security precautions or train staff on how to spot or deal with a cyberattack.

When HIPAA was first created the main concern was to keep medical information like diagnosis and procedures private. Today, however, hackers aren’t interested in that information. What they are looking for are Social Security numbers, credit card information, and any other protected health information (PHI) that can be sold on the black market.

In order to prepare for a ransomware healthcare facilities need to identify where sensitive data is stored and routinely conduct a security Risk Analysis (SRA) in order to comply with HIPAA’s Security Rule. In addition, organizations need to train their employees to be able to recognize social engineering attacks and phishing emails.

Facilities should also be wary of employees who are only employed for short periods of time. They should have limited access to Electronic Health Records (EHR) as there is a greater chance of it being stolen in order to commit financial fraud. Training employees in the consequences of such actions reduces the likelihood of it occurring as well.

The best way to prepare for a ransomware attack is to develop robust backup and data recovery policies with those backups being stored offline. It’s also important to be running the latest version of their operating system and making sure their anti-malware software is up to date. Finally, every organization should have their email gateways scan and block any malicious code it comes across

Developing a robust Security Risk Assessment won’t solve all the problems a medical facility faces in the digital age, but it will lay the groundwork for dealing with two of the biggest challenges they face.