Data Privacy Tips Healthcare Institutions Need to Follow


Today, health data phishing has surged in prevalence. From Verizon’s 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report, healthcare remained one of the most popular victims of cybercrime.

What does it usually involve? Cybercriminals masquerade as legitimate entities through their address or email design, convincing users to hand over sensitive health information. Anything from medical records to social security numbers becomes available to hackers who successfully convince employees to click on suspicious links or share passwords.

Criminals phish health data for a number of reasons. One prevailing motive is that medical histories and insurance details are considered luxury items in black markets. Criminals also use the stolen medical information to impersonate people so they can take advantage of their medical benefits.

Read the examples of phishing incidents below to understand what weak cybersecurity brings you. They may spur you to think of novel approaches for avoiding online criminals. There are precautionary measures you should take to bolster your defenses and avoid being a cybercriminal’s next phishing victim.

Consequences of Phishing and Poor Cybersecurity

Suffering from a phishing attack is catastrophic. Long-term impacts are hard to reverse. Here’s a quick look at what successful phishing scams can lead to:

  1. Identity theft
  2. Financial loss
  3. Medical fraud
  4. Emotional distress
  5. Misdiagnosis
  6. Reputation damage
  7. Legal consequences
  8. Operational disruption
  9. Patient distrust
  10. Intellectual property loss
  11. Privacy reluctance

These may only be the tip of the cybercrime iceberg. Digital tools are evolving to make criminals appear deceptively convincing. Cybersecurity becomes all the more necessary to distinguish what’s a fake email and what isn’t. It shouldn’t be an optional seminar anymore.

Infamous Healthcare Phishing and Data Breach Incidents

Phishing and data breach incidents in healthcare institutions affect patients the most. They add to their troubles while they recover at the hospital. Here are a few infamous cases of criminals phishing their way to get a hold of medical information.

Saint Agnes hack (2015)

A phishing attack launched on Saint Agnes Health Care Inc. in 2015 led to hackers gaining unauthorized access to almost 25,000 patient records. Full names and medical records were all accessed illegally, exposing patients to identity theft and fraud.

The incident is nearly a decade old. But It highlights how long hackers have been committed to stealing medical information.

LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics (2019)

In this unfortunate event, LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics fell victim to a third-party breach through a medical billing collections vendor, AMCA. Hackers got hold of the personal and financial data of approximately 20 million patients.

A takeaway from this scam is how vulnerable you are with unprotected networks. If you’re working with a third party, ensure they also practice excellent cybersecurity.

Blackbaud Breach (2020)

Blackbaud is a fundraising and financial management software provider. The breach they suffered in 2020 rippled across the healthcare industry. Hospitals and healthcare organizations had their data compromised, and exposed countless donor and patient information.

Fresenius Group (2020)

Fresenius Group suffered a ransomware attack that disrupted their operations. As one of the world’s largest hospital operators, this was a massive attack.  

For background, ransomware is a type of virus hackers deploy to extort victims. Such as a common ransom, criminals hold a victim’s data “hostage” by locking the device or blocking access until they receive a certain amount of money.

Hammersmith Medicines Research (2020)

The medical research facility Hammersmith Medicines Research suffered a ransomware attack that exposed sensitive patient data, including medical records and passport copies. Authorities cited that it could’ve likely been a phishing scam. The suspected hacker group uses phishing popularly for their criminal activities.

13 Precautionary Measures to Take to Prevent Health Data Phishing

Whether you’re a healthcare leader or an individual concerned about the safety of your own data, being proactive always benefits you. From investing in better equipment to training employees, follow the preventive measures below to secure patient data further.

1. Implement a robust cybersecurity infrastructure

IT experts will help you boost your cyber defenses. They may also know how to implement intrusion detection systems so you’re alerted when someone clicks on a suspicious link as early as possible.

Segmenting your network is also a wise strategy. If your intranet is hyperconnected among all devices, it can make it easier for hackers to find sensitive files wherever they hack into it. With a segmented network, sensitive data is isolated from others, creating another layer of cybersecurity.

2. Encrypt your data

Data encryption means making information unintelligible for humans unless they use a specific device with a decryption key to read it. In other words, hackers won’t understand your data even if they got their hands on it.

even if hackers could get their hands on your data, they likely wouldn’t even be able to use it because of its encryption. It tightens your network’s privacy and secures your patients’ information.

3. Conduct cybersecurity training

Human error factors into data breaches significantly. It’s what phishing scams exploit. Regular cybersecurity training sessions for all employees educate them about the risks of data breaches, phishing attacks, social engineering, and SMS scams. You must train employees to identify dubious emails and report them immediately.

4. Limit data access

Strict access controls prevent random people from opening and interacting with sensitive health data. Choose essential personnel to be able to access confidential files. The long-term safety you develop is invaluable. 

5. Manage risk collaboratively

Healthcare organizations often collaborate with third-party vendors and partners who handle patient data. Take the LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics breach, for example. Clearly stating data protection requirements and evaluating their cybersecurity practices is essential.

6. Audit and assess your cybersecurity routinely

More often than not, data breaches are easily preventable only if adequate measures safeguard your data. Regular security audits and vulnerability assessments allow you to identify weaknesses in your defenses. These weaknesses can range from using simple passwords to having unprotected networks. Addressing these proactively minimizes the risk and damage of phishing attacks.

7. Create and follow an incident response plan

IBM reports it takes businesses an average of 277 days to spot and contain a data breach. To put that in perspective, if an employee clicks a suspicious link on January 1, they can expect to finally be rid of it by Q4, on October 4. An incident response plan can potentially reduce that time significantly.

Outline the exact steps to take once you realize you’ve suffered a phishing attack; unplug devices and contact cybersecurity authorities immediately. Assign a point person to take charge during the event to contain the attack before it spreads across the network.

With the right incident response plan, you can cushion the blow of a phishing attack and keep your patients’ data safe.

8. Store necessary data only

Collecting and retaining only the necessary patient data reduces the volume of sensitive information that could be exposed in a breach. Implement data minimization strategies to limit the amount of data stored and minimize the potential impact of a breach.

9. Dispose of devices properly

Safe disposal is crucial, especially when devices containing patient data reach the end of their lifecycle. Wipe out any data before disposal, resale, or repurposing to prevent accidental exposure of patient information.

10. Backup your data regularly

Outdated systems can be very detrimental to data security. The very reason there are updates is to keep up with the continuous tactics of fraudsters. Keep backups of critical systems and data in secure off-site locations. You can quickly restore data and resume operations in case of a breach or data loss incident.

11. Comply with data protection laws and standards

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) are two data protection laws you must comply with, depending on where you’re established. Besides outlining cybersecurity best practices, they provide patients with a legal defense against you in case of a phishing scam. Therefore, it’s in your best interest to follow these strictly.

12. Perform staff background checks often

Some employees may not be as keen on protecting the company image.

Performing background checks on your staff regularly ensures their integrity while handling sensitive patient data. Thorough vetting procedures verify the trustworthiness of personnel. It also increases the chances of catching employees who may post as an insider threat. 

13. Follow password best practices

Passwords that mix letters, symbols, and numbers are the most secure types. It’s also best practice to change it regularly to limit the chances of hackers cracking it. Having said that, passwords alone aren’t enough. Cybersecurity professionals promote using multi-factor authentication (MFA) for an extra layer of security.

Accounts with MFA will require you to confirm access through a separate device, typically your smartphone, aside from asking for your password. These may come in the form of authentication apps or one-time passwords (OTP). It’s a small security feature that adds immense protection for your patients’ data.

Fortify Healthcare Data Security for the Future

Criminals won’t stop targeting healthcare data. The latest technology might not always save you; data privacy best practices are timeless. If you’re the head of a medical establishment, ensure a robust cybersecurity infrastructure. Encrypt patient data, educate employees, and back up your data regularly.

Healthcare businesses aren’t the only ones that should follow the tips above. Learning to spot a fake email from a real one will already be a massive boost to your cybersecurity. With the right habits and practices, you can avoid the costly consequences of these online crimes.