Assessing the New Cybersecurity Practices Publication: Why Small and Medium-Sized Care Organizations Have Reason to Rejoice

Jan. 3, 2019
A new set of voluntary cybersecurity practices released by HHS offers practical advice and conceptual supports for hospitals and medical groups

How helpful will the new set of voluntary cybersecurity practices that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released in late December, be, to the leaders of patient care organizations? Only time will tell, as part of the value of the release will only be made manifest as the leaders of patient care organizations move forward to implement some of those practices, and the potential success of such implementations is in some way measured and benchmarked.

But the release is a first start, at least. As Healthcare Informatics Associate Editor Heather Landi reported on January 2, HHS released the set of practices in the form of a publication “that marks the culmination of a two-year effort that brought together over 150 cybersecurity and healthcare experts from industry and the government under the Healthcare and Public Health (HPH) Sector Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience Public-Private Partnership.”

“Cybersecurity is everyone’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of every organization working in healthcare and public health.  In all of our efforts, we must recognize and leverage the value of partnerships among government and industry stakeholders to tackle the shared problems collaboratively,” Janet Vogel, HHS Acting Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), said in a statement published with the release of the new publication.

Health Industry Cybersecurity Practices: Managing Threats and Protecting Patients (HICP), the primary publication of the Cybersecurity Act of 2015, Section 405(d) Task Group, aims to raise awareness, provide vetted cybersecurity practices, and move organizations towards consistency in mitigating the current most pertinent cybersecurity threats to the sector,” HHS officials stated. “It seeks to aid healthcare and public health organizations to develop meaningful cybersecurity objectives and outcomes. The publication includes a main document, two technical volumes, and resources and templates.”

The overall publication consists of several sections, the first being the HICP, which “examines cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities that affect the healthcare industry. It explores five current threats and presents 10 practices to mitigate those threats; “Technical Volume 1: Cybersecurity Practices for Small Health Care Organizations,” which offers cybersecurity practices for small healthcare organizations; “Technical Volume 2: Cybersecurity Practices for Medium and Large Health Care Organizations”; the “Resources and Templates” portion, which “includes a variety of cybersecurity resources and templates for end users to reference”; and a Cybersecurity Practices Assessments Toolkit, which “helps organizations prioritize their cyber threats and develop their own action plans using the assessment methodology outlined in the Resources and Templates volume”—that last section being still under development as of Jan. 2.

As Landi reported, “The HICP publication aims to provide cybersecurity practices for this vast, diverse, and open sector to ultimately improve the security and safety of patients. The main document of the publication explores the five most relevant and current threats to the industry. It also recommends 10 cybersecurity practices to help mitigate these threats.”

What’s more, she wrote, “The main document presents real-life events and statistics that demonstrate the financial and patient care impacts of cyber incidents.  It also lays out a call to action for all industry stakeholders, from C-suite executives and healthcare practitioners to IT security professionals, that protective and preventive measures must be taken now. The publication also includes two technical volumes geared for IT and IT security professionals, one focusing on cybersecurity practices for small healthcare organizations, and one focused on practices for medium and large healthcare organizations.”

Among the salient statistics reported in the HICP:

  • Fifty-eight percent of malware attack victims are small businesses.
  • In 2017, cyber-attacks cost small and medium-sized businesses an average of $2.2 million.
  • Sixty of small businesses go out of business within six months of an attack.
  • And, 90 percent of small businesses do not use any data protection at all for company and customer information.

How does that translate into impacts on smaller healthcare organizations? Among other incidents, the HICP notes that:

  • A popular orthopedic practice announced that its computer system was hacked via breach of a software vendor’s log-in credentials. This breach put just under a half-million people at risk of identity theft. Of those, 500 patient profiles appeared for sale on the dark web. The information for sale included names, addresses, social security numbers, and other personally identifiable information (PII). Although not posted for sale, pertinent PHI such as X-ray results and medical diagnoses were also stolen.
  • A rural hospital had to replace its entire computer network after a ransomware cyber-attack froze the hospital’s electronic health record (EHR) system. Doctors were unable to review their patients’ medical histories or transmit laboratory and pharmacy orders. Officials were unable to restore essential services and could not pay the ransom for the return of their system. After consultations with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and cybersecurity experts, hospital officials made the difficult decision to replace the entire system.

Of particular practicality is some of the very basic advice given to the leaders of smaller healthcare organizations. To wit: “Doctors and nurses know that hand sanitizing is critical to prevent the spread of germs. That does not mean health care workers wash up as often as they should. Similarly, we know that cybersecurity practices reduce the risk of cyber-attacks and data breaches. Just as we are able to protect our patients from infection, we should all work towards protecting patient data to allow physicians and caregivers to trust the data and systems that enable quality health care. Just as health care professionals must wash their hands before caring for patients, health care organizations must practice good ‘cyber hygiene’ in today’s digital world, including it as a part of daily universal precautions,” the HICP notes. “Like the simple act of hand-washing, a culture of cyber-awareness does not have to be complicated or expensive for a small organization. It must simply be effective at enabling organization members to protect information that is critical to the organization’s patients and operations. Your organization’s vigilance against cyber-attacks will increase concurrently with your and your workforce’s knowledge of cybersecurity. This knowledge will enable you to advance to the next series of cybersecurity Practices, expanding your organization’s awareness of and ability to thwart cyber threats.”

Meanwhile, both smaller and larger patient care organizations will benefit from the technical supports, including a Security Risk Assessment Tool, a set of recommendations on medical devices and cybersecurity, and an incident response risk management handbook.

What this set of resources does is to fill a gap between theory and technical practice in a key area. Will it shift the entire landscape of cybersecurity for patient care organizations? No, that would be a far-too-ambitious goal. But the healthcare IT leaders of smaller and medium-sized patient care organizations in particular, will welcome practice advice and supports, as they move forward in their journeys around cybersecurity. Any such journey is inherently challenging, and federal publications and resources like these will be of real value in moving patient care organization HIT leaders forward.

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