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As more UK patients go private, healthcare providers must bolster cybersecurity efforts

By Mark Clark, VP Sales EMEA North, Onapsis



Put off by long emergency room waits and years-long backlogs for some conditions in the NHS, a growing number of people across the UK are embracing private healthcare.

In fact, nearly half a million people took out private healthcare insurance with the UK’s three biggest insurers in 2022.

In the same year, 10 per cent of adults turned to private or independent healthcare, with two-thirds doing so because of difficulty accessing treatments on the NHS, or long wait times.

While private healthcare providers will undoubtedly welcome the additional customers, they need to ensure that they’re equipped to meet the additional demand.

That, in turn, means properly equipping themselves for growth across all sectors of the business.

There are obvious ways of doing this, such as increasing the number of facilities they have available and augmenting the number of staff, as well as other less visible areas that are equally important.

Cybersecurity in particular should be high up on the list of priorities as they grow.

The growing threat to healthcare

In healthcare specifically this is a challenge, as sensitive patient data, sharing of clinical and non clinical information, as well as increased need to collaborate across departments, creates a wider attack surface which needs more active and regular security.

Private healthcare providers need only look to the NHS, the organisation whose work they’re supplementing, to see how devastating cyber attacks can be.

In August last year, for example, a ransomware attack caused massive outages at a number of NHS facilities.

The outages affected everything from patient referrals to ambulance dispatch, out-of-hours appointment bookings, mental health services, and emergency prescriptions.

It also puts patient data and ultimately, patients at risk.

But that’s a long way from the first cyberattack that disrupted the NHS and its supply chain.

A few years earlier, in 2017, it was hit by the infamous WannaCry attack which cost the health service £92 million and saw 19,000 appointments cancelled.

And across the pond in the US, cyber attacks against healthcare organisations surged by 86 per cent compared to the previous year, with a weekly average of 1,410 attacks.

As private healthcare providers become more and more prevalent and grow in size, they will increasingly be the target of such attacks.

And with the average data breach in the UK now costing upwards of £4 million, that’s something those providers can ill-afford.

In the event of a breach, which already comes with reputational risks, they would have to pass on those costs to their customers.

That will also push up their insurance costs, something that is unlikely to attract much support in the midst of a major cost of living crisis.

Of course, monetary cost isn’t  the only factor that needs to be counted when it comes to cyberattacks on healthcare providers.

Interruptions can cost patients life-saving diagnosis and treatment.

While the NHS’ sheer size means it can mitigate this to a certain degree, it’s potentially much more challenging for a private healthcare provider.

Even if it has a large network of hospitals, practices, and clinics, it’s unlikely to ever have the same kind of resilience or scale as a publically-funded institution that’s been around for 75 years.

The right approach to cybersecurity

In summary, UK private healthcare providers need to scale their cybersecurity efforts as they grow.

This doesn’t just mean building bigger in-house security teams as whilst they may be a critical part of the picture, they can’t do it all themselves.

Organisations should also invest heavily in employee education and training.

With the vast majority of cyberattacks involving some form of social engineering and cybercriminals producing increasingly sophisticated spoof emails, texts, and websites, employees are one of the biggest attack surfaces in any organisation.

The more they know about the tools and techniques used by cybercriminals, the less likely they are to fall victim to them.

Beyond that, healthcare providers should also ensure that they choose security vendors with strong track records in the healthcare sector who can protect their critical business applications.

The chosen vendor should also have a solid research team that proactively identifies the latest threats and how to nullify them.

Moreover, the vendor should be open about sharing that research with its customers, ensuring that their own cybersecurity teams are able to deal with any new threats, identify any gaps across the attack surface and shore up any vulnerabilities.

Finally, with organisations now being urged to take a “when-not-if” mentality to cyberattacks, they should also look for a cybersecurity vendor that can help them put a solid breach response plan in place.

Executed properly, such a plan can greatly mitigate the impact of a successful cyberattack and ensure business continuity.

Get it right from the get-go

Ultimately, it’s unlikely that the current patient growth trend being experienced by UK private healthcare providers will slow down anytime soon.

But such growth does come with a level of  risk as well as opportunities, particularly when it comes to cybersecurity.

It is therefore critical that healthcare providers prioritise their risk profile and engage the right vendors who can ensure they have the best possible protection against attacks and can respond appropriately when successful attacks take place.

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