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Cybersecurity in healthcare: Understanding the dark side of digitalisation

By John Allen, strategic pharma consultant, Radiflow



From technology improvements to medical breakthroughs, healthcare is an industry that’s constantly evolving.

We can attribute many recent advances to the industry’s embrace of digitalisation and IoT.

This has allowed disparate tools and systems to connect to the internet and share data, delivering a more complete and accurate view of patients and processes.

Like all industries, there’s no denying that healthcare digitalisation provides myriad benefits that ultimately result in better patient outcomes.

However, it also carries some less attractive side effects in the form of increased cyber risks.

The risk of connected OT

Previously, operational technology (OT) assets like lab equipment and MRI machines operated in isolation.

But today, they’re increasingly being connected to the network to enhance information-sharing and minimise administrative processes.

As a result, healthcare organisations’ attack surface is increasing exponentially, making them more vulnerable to cyber threats.

John Allen

The first problem is that most legacy OT assets weren’t designed with cybersecurity in mind, as historically, they operated off-network and encountered minimal risk.

Another issue relates to OT network management.

OT systems are generally run by engineers or lab technicians who have traditionally prioritised physical safety and functionality, with cybersecurity in healthcare being a secondary consideration.

While this approach sufficed before the rise of IoT, it is no longer viable.

Attacks are becoming more frequent and sophisticated, and the healthcare sector is an attractive target.

Check Point Research recently reported that healthcare organisations around the globe suffered an average of 1,436 cyber-attacks every week in 2022, 74 per cent more than in 2021.

Three pillars – people, processes and technology

With growing IT/OT convergence, healthcare organisations must prioritise OT security and implement effective measures to address the challenges presented by digitalisation.

Realistically, many healthcare organisations will have to rethink their security culture and strategy completely.

While there may be some growing pains, it’s hard to overstate the importance of devising a comprehensive cybersecurity plan that considers people, processes and technology.

Well-informed people

Let’s begin with people.

A healthcare provider can buy the best security solution on the market, but it becomes next to useless without the right people and expertise to operate it.

Cyber threats are constantly evolving, so just as flu vaccines are adapted each season to combat the latest strain, OT security teams must also adapt to address the latest threats.

Key stakeholders must also be on board, and regular cyber awareness training should be a requirement for everyone.

Remember, “set it and forget it” isn’t an option.

Securing IT and OT in healthcare requires an operating model that includes buy-in from the entire business.

Defined processes

Putting clear processes in place is crucial to proactively getting ahead of, responding to, and mitigating threats.

Healthcare organisations should consider conducting a posture assessment and risk assessment, as well as using threat intelligence and modelling, and even getting cyber insurance.

Having a clear process in place helps organisations to identify threats quickly, respond to them as efficiently as possible, and learn lessons going forward.

Cutting-edge technology

Finally, technology has a vital role to play in securing healthcare organisations.

Healthcare providers must have full and continuous visibility of their IT/OT network to be able to spot anomalies and act quickly.

This should be continuously updated to include any new network areas added by acquisition, new equipment purchases, or via other means.

Using threat intelligence, OT operators should also be able to effectively manage vulnerabilities, as well as run risk evaluations and simulations to decide when to act.

It’s nearly impossible to combat every threat, so being able to prioritise effectively is crucial to maintaining system security and maximising ROI.

There’s no doubt that digitalisation and IoT carry numerous benefits for both healthcare workers and patients.

However, they also bring increased cyber risks, which can easily translate into real-world harm.

To address this, cybersecurity in healthcare needs to become a priority.

Above all, healthcare organisations should look to develop a comprehensive OT security plan, jointly owned by CISO and business owners, that considers people, processes and technology.

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