The health care industry has been on the front lines a lot lately. Along with helping control the effects of COVID-19, it has been a prime target for ransomware. In a 2021 survey conducted of 597 health delivery organizations (HDOs), 42% had faced two ransomware attacks in the past couple of years. Over a third (36%) attributed those ransomware incidents to a third party, such as what happened earlier this year with Kaseya. The effects go beyond stolen health care data, although that is important, too. What does it mean when a health care organization faces an attack? And what can they do to protect themselves?

Health Care Data Directly Affects Patients

Those attacks diminished many HDOs’ confidence in their ability to address the risks of ransomware. More than half (61%) said they weren’t confident in their ransomware defenses following the events of 2020, for instance. That’s up from 55% a year earlier.

After all, ransomware attacks undermine health care organizations’ mission of providing their patients with timely care. Consider the following findings from the Ponemon study:

  • Nearly three-quarters (71%) of respondents reported that a successful cyber attack had resulted in longer stay lengths for patients
  • About the same proportion said that ransomware attacks had created delays in medical procedures and tests that resulted in poor outcomes for patients who needed them
  • Slightly fewer (65%) said that the attacks had yielded an increase in the number of patients diverted to or transferred to other facilities
  • More than a quarter (36%) of respondents had witnessed an increase in complications from medical procedures following a ransomware attack
  • About a fifth said cyberattacks had increased their patients’ mortality rate.

Hospital Cyber Attacks in the News

Today’s most high-profile cyber attacks go beyond health care data, too. In September 2020, for instance, German authorities looked into the death of a woman following a ransomware attack against a hospital. The patient died after being diverted to another hospital located more than 30 km (18 miles) away from her intended destination, University Hospital Duesseldorf. The facility was dealing with a DoppelPaymer ransomware attack that prevented it from receiving her.

Following an investigation into what happened, German law enforcement determined that the victim’s medical diagnosis was of such a severity that she would have died regardless of whichever hospital might have admitted her.

In October, a woman in Alabama filed a lawsuit alleging a hospital had not informed her that a ransomware attack had disabled its computers. The lawsuit asserted that hospital personnel had given reduced care to her baby. The baby was born with a severe brain injury and later died. Attackers after money or health care data ended up with something far worse.

The Wall Street Journal noted that many of those attackers deployed their payloads more quickly in the networks of health care organizations than in other cases because they thought their victims would be more inclined to pay. The logic was that these needed to retrieve sensitive health data as quickly as possible to treat their patients. In response, those organizations might not have had time to negotiate with ransomware actors. So, they might have been in a position to meet those attackers’ demands without question.

How Health Care Organizations Can Defend Themselves

Many HDOs surveyed were preparing for a ransomware attack that targets their health care data or critical systems. For instance, 54% created a business continuity plan that included planned system outages in the event of a ransomware incident. Others invested in cyber insurance, audited and increased backups of business-critical systems and allocated funds for a ransomware attack at 51%, 34% and 23%, each.

These and other measures can certainly help health care organizations respond to a ransomware attack. But it’s just as important that they take steps to prevent a ransomware infection in the first place.

First, invest in security awareness training for employees. Craft modules that speak to ransomware along with other relevant dangers such as insider threats, the privacy of medical imaging and supply chain risks. Doing so will help empower people to spot and report potential threats to their patients and health care data. That, in turn, improves their employer’s overall security posture.

Keep Up to Date 

Security awareness training is an ongoing process, of course. This means that infosec personnel needs to revise their employee training in an ongoing manner. Make sure you keep track of new and emerging threats. That’s extra relevant for ransomware. In this threat landscape, attack operations are constantly rebranding themselves and adopting more layers of extortion. Towards that end, security teams can consider using threat intelligence to keep up to date. They might consider blending third-party streams that are relevant to their industry with in-house sources. This way, they can obtain as broad of visibility as possible into their unique threat profile.

Finally, teams can implement technical controls that help to prevent ransomware gangs from using common attack vectors. These measures include email filters that block messages containing embedded links for disallowed domains, disabling Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) on Windows machines that don’t require remote access and using vulnerability management to prioritize remediation of known vulnerabilities affecting authorized software and hardware assets.

Sooner, Not Later

Health care is one of those sectors where a ransomware attack could affect someone’s physical safety and well-being. No one wants the reputation damage and other costs that such an incident might bring. That’s in addition to the possible breach of health care data. Hence why health care organizations need to be proactive and make sure they have the right ransomware protection solutions in place sooner rather than later.

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