Current U.K. regulations do not fully consider how poor device security could potentially affect patient privacy and safety in the healthcare sector, according to a new report.

Vulnerabilities and Increased Integration Put Patients at Risk

In a study titled “Cyber Safety and Resilience: Strengthening the Digital Systems That Support the Modern Economy,” researchers from the Royal Academy of Engineering argued that the U.K.’s health device regulations fail to adequately account for digital security as the technology landscape evolves.

“The regulation of health devices and systems has focused on patient safety, albeit not perfectly, but has not fully considered the possible impacts of poor cybersecurity,” the researchers wrote in the report. “As new technologies and systems are created, and the threat environment evolves, vulnerabilities in connected health devices need to be addressed.”

According to the study, both implantable and nonimplantable health devices are prone to vulnerabilities. These weaknesses affect low-power, low-footprint sensors as well as large-scale legacy medical equipment.

At the same time, the researchers observed that healthcare providers’ enterprise systems are integrating more with clinical suppliers and systems. This makes them preferred targets of ransomware and other digital threats.

Improving Health Device Regulations in the UK

Researchers advised U.K. regulators to address these risks by linking data protection standards with digital security best practices. In addition, security frameworks should use clear language to help device manufacturers and other parties easily navigate the regulations.

The report also outlined the following recommendations for securing health devices to ensure patients’ safety:

  • Governance — When applicable, clarify the roles and responsibilities for national and local entities in the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS).
  • Procurement — Look to other industries to understand supply chain risks. Organizations can use that knowledge to build more trustworthy products and provide customers with information about the security of those items.
  • Design — Seek input from healthcare professionals when creating new systems. Developers need such contributions to learn how health organizations implement their systems.
  • Defense — Explore patch management strategies that account for patient safety and the security of medical devices.
  • Education — Train clinical professionals on digital security and data literacy.

The report’s lead author, Nick Jennings, underscored these recommendations with a plea to build better security into systems from the outset. “We cannot totally avoid failures or attacks,” he said, “but we can design systems that are highly resilient and will recover quickly.”

Many of the recommendations for healthcare also apply to other critical sectors. The researchers noted that it’s important for private organizations to work with the U.K. government to develop relevant sector-specific guidelines.

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