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Study: Health Plans Account for Majority of Breached Patient Records

September 25, 2018
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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Mass. General study analyzes numbers, trends in health care data breaches nationwide, 2010-2017
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Health plans accounted for the greatest number of patient records breached over the past seven years, according to an analysis of U.S. health care data conducted by two Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) physicians. 

Their report, published in JAMA, examined changes in data breaches during a period when electronic health records were being widely adopted across the country. 

While the largest number of data breaches took place at heath care providers—hospitals, physician offices, and similar entities—breaches involving the greatest number of patient records took place at health plans.

Lead author Thomas McCoy, M.D., director of research at the MGH Center for Quantitative Health, said in a statement, “While we conduct scientific programs designed to recognize the enormous research potential of large, centralized electronic health record databases, we designed this study to better understand the potential downsides for our patients – in this case the risk of data disclosure.”  

McCoy and senior author Roy Perlis, M.D., director of the Center for Quantitative Health, analyzed all data breaches reported to the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from January 1, 2010, to December 31, 2017.  They examined trends in the numbers and types of breaches reported in three categories: those taking place at health care providers, at health plans and at business associates – entities that do not provide or reimburse for health services but have legitimate access to patient data in support of plans or providers.

Protections for private patient data and mandatory public reporting of breaches of data confidentiality were established by the 1999 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act. Between 2010 and 2013, data breaches involving at least 29.1 million patient records were reported. The researchers surmised that the ongoing transition to electronic health records may increase such breaches, and used public data to examine the nature and extent of breaches from2010 through 2017.

The researchers’ analysis covered 2,149 reported breaches involving a total of 176.4 million patient records, with individual breaches ranging from 500 to almost 79 million patient records. Over the seven-year period, the total number of breaches increased every year (except in 2015) from 199 in 2010 to 344 in 2017. 

During that seven-year period, almost three out of four breaches occurred at healthcare providers, as 1,503 breaches took place at healthcare providers, or 70 percent of all breaches. In those breaches, 37.1 million records were compromised (21 percent of all breached records).

However, breaches involving health plans accounted for 63 percent of all breached records, or 110.4 million records. There were fewer total breaches at health plans during that seven-year period, with 278 breaches, or 13 percent of all breaches.

Business associates accounted for 28.7 million records breached, or 16 percent of all records breached.

The study also indicates changing trends over time with the adoption of EHRs and digital technology, as the most common type of breach in 2010 was theft of physical records. By 2017 data hacking or other information technology incidents accounted for the largest number of breaches, followed by unauthorized access to or disclosure of patient data, according to the study.

Similarly, the most common type of breached media in 2010 was from laptop computers followed by paper and film records, while by 2017 network servers or emails accounted for the largest number of breaches. Overall, the greatest number of patient records were breached from network servers.

“While the total of 510 breaches of paper and film records impacted about 3.4 million patient records, the 410 breaches of network servers impacted nearly 140 million records; and the three largest breaches together accounted for a bit more than half of all records breached,” McCoy said.  “As we work to make breaches less common and less consequential, we need to better understand systemic risk factors for data breach and the harms that arise from data disclosure.”

Furthermore, during this seven-year period, there also were increases in hacking or information technology (IT) incidents and unauthorized access, which both surpassed theft by 2016.

Perlis said in a statement, “For me, the message is that working with big data carries big responsibility. This is an area where health plans, health systems, clinicians and patients need to work together. We hear a lot about the huge opportunity to improve how we care for patients – but there is also risk, which we need to manage responsibly."

McCoy is an assistant professor of Psychiatry and Medicine, and Perlis is a professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

 

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

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A new set of voluntary cybersecurity practices just released by HHS offers practical advice and conceptual supports that fill information gaps
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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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HHS Releases Voluntary Healthcare Cybersecurity Practices

January 2, 2019
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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In late December, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released voluntary cybersecurity practices to the healthcare industry with the aim of providing practice guidelines to cost-effectively reduce cybersecurity risks.

The “Health Industry Cybersecurity Practices (HICP): Managing Threats and Protecting Patients” publication aims to provide guidance to healthcare organizations of all types and sizes, ranging from local clinics to large hospital systems.

The industry-led effort was in response to a mandate set forth by the Cybersecurity Act of 2015 Section 405(d), to develop practical cybersecurity guidelines to cost-effectively reduce cybersecurity risks for the healthcare industry.

According to HHS, the publication 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.

While technologies are vital to the healthcare industry and help provide life-saving treatments and improve patient care, these same technologies are vulnerable to myriad attacks from adversaries, ranging from criminals and hacktivists to nation-states, according to HHS. These technologies can be exploited to gain access to personal patient data or render entire hospital systems inoperable. Recent cyber-attacks against the nation’s healthcare industry continue to highlight the importance of ensuring these technologies are safe and secure.

“The healthcare industry is truly a varied digital ecosystem. We heard loud and clear through this process that providers need actionable and practical advice, tailored to their needs, to manage modern cyber threats. That is exactly what this resource delivers; recommendations stratified by the size of the organization, written for both the clinician as well as the IT subject matter expert,” Erik Decker, industry co-lead and Chief Information Security and Privacy Officer for the University of Chicago Medicine, said in a statement.

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.

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.

 

Related Insights For: Cybersecurity

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CynergisTek, Protenus Partner on Privacy Monitoring Programs

December 26, 2018
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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CynergisTek, Inc., an Austin, Texas-based healthcare cybersecurity firm, is partnering with Protenus, a healthcare compliance analytics company, to combine the companies’ technology tools and services with a focus on patient privacy monitoring programs.

The partnership will grant health systems access to Protenus’ analytics platform that leverages artificial intelligence to gather data related to potential patient privacy risks, along with CynergisTek’s patient privacy monitoring services.

According to the Protenus research, insider incidents accounted for 23 percent of all breaches that occurred at health systems in Q3 2018. This figure will only continue increasing, indicating that now more than ever, health systems need a cost-effective solution to meet the daily challenges of managing patient privacy.

To address this need, CynergisTek and Protenus formed a preferred partnership to combine CynergisTek’s healthcare consulting experience and privacy programs with Protenus’ healthcare analytics technology to offer health systems both the people, processes, and technology components of a strong patient privacy monitoring program, according to the companies.

“As health systems face mounting challenges in creating and maintaining robust patient privacy monitoring programs, we identified a need to partner with a company offering complementary services so that health systems can act on the insights uncovered by our analytics,” Nick Culbertson, CEO and co-founder of Protenus, said in a statement.

 “Data privacy is evolving as a dominate theme in conversations, both in healthcare and other industries, and health systems need to take an end-to-end approach to patient privacy to truly address this complex and mission-critical challenge,” Mac McMillan, CEO and president of CynergisTek, said in a statement.

 

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