Keeping it Simple in Healthcare Cybersecurity

“Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.” – Woody Guthrie, musician

The proliferation of electronic systems and devices in healthcare is a good example of the tendency of systems to increase in complexity over time, and the complexity has taken its toll on our ability to adequately secure data. In 2014, the number of people in California alone whose electronic protected health information (ePHI) was exposed by a breach had increased 600 percent. The national cost of recovering from a breach averaged $5.4 million, not including the harm from loss of consumer trust.


With so much at risk, security is no longer just an IT issue; it is a significant business and operational concern. The growing complexity of healthcare IT demands a simpler approach that will enable organizations to address security realistically. As Harvard surgeon Atul Gawande explained in his 2007 book The Checklist Manifesto, a checklist can help people simplify the steps in a complex procedure, like the one he used to reduce central line infections at Johns Hopkins University. His simple, five-step checklist for central line insertion, including the enforcement and monitoring of hand washing, helped prevent 43 infections and 8 ICU deaths, saving the hospital $2 million. Enforcement and monitoring of hand washing significantly increased compliance of basic hygiene and was important in reducing infection rates.

Use checklists

If healthcare organizations used a checklist of basic security hygiene, similar to the one Gawande wrote about, many breaches of privacy could be avoided. But, like enforcement of hand washing, which is both cheap and effective at preventing infection, healthcare organizations often neglect the bedrock of a good security posture: encryption, identity and access management platforms, risk analyses, and breach remediation and response plans.

While organizations understand that these activities are important, many lack operational follow-through. For example, less than 60 percent of providers have completed a risk assessment on their newest connected and integrated technologies, and only 30 percent are confident that their business associates can detect patient data loss or theft or perform a risk assessment. Barely 75 percent of providers use any form of encryption, despite the fact that it confers immunity from the requirement to report ePHI breaches. And according to Dell's 2014 Global Technology Adoption Index, only one in four organizations surveyed actually has a plan in place for all types of security breaches. Many healthcare organizations are just as vulnerable as Community Health Systems was in early 2014, or insurer Anthem was at the beginning of 2015.

In the face of multiple incentives to encrypt data and manage authorizations and data access, why do so many organizations ignore these most of basic of measures?

The answer is complexity. In a 2010 survey, IBM’s Institute for Business Value identified “the rapid escalation of complexity” as a top challenge for CEOs, and most of those polled did not feel felt adequately ready to confront this complexity. To better manage the chaos, healthcare CIOs can look to their own clinical departments for examples of significant quality improvements achieved by establishing a checklist of behaviors and making people accountable for sticking to the list. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), for instance, has adopted a 12-point framework to help physician practices assess their security and comply with security best practices. These guidelines are tightly integrated into areas such as process development, risk analysis, governance and building a culture of security.

Simplified playbook

Dell security experts have also written recently on the importance of a simplified playbook approach to security, focusing on four areas: (1) preventing, (2) detecting, (3) containing, and (4) eradicating breaches. By implementing a framework based on these four simple principles, healthcare organizations can not only address the technical and hardware components of security, but also address the “human element” that is responsible for many breaches, including human error and malicious insiders. Within these four strategic areas of focus, healthcare organizations can incorporate checklists of the core tactics that will support those areas. For instance, many of the activities in this process will take place to prevent a breach in the first place, and should limit employee negligence. Thus, to prevent a breach, a checklist similar to the following should be implemented, depending on the organization’s unique needs:

1. Automatically encrypt all protected data from point of creation, and as it moves, including movement into the cloud.

2. Implement an effective identity and access management solution. Include clear direction on access rights, password maintenance and management, remote access controls, and auditing and appropriate software configuration.

3. Regularly assess security risks, using a framework such as NIST, and include threat analysis, reporting schedule and data breach recording procedures.  Ensure risk remediation efforts have a high priority.

4. Ensure the education of staff on security “hand washing” behaviors, including password, internet and email usage practices.

5. Monitor to detect threats in real-time.

Similar checklists can also be created for the other three areas mentioned above. Healthcare organizations can simplify even further by vertically integrating security add-ons and centralizing and hardening security into the IT infrastructure. This includes embedding security in firewalls, servers and data centers; integrating secure messaging with next generation firewalls; and encrypting data automatically as it scales and moves into the cloud.

We can improve healthcare cybersecurity by focusing on a checklist of simple practices that have the greatest impact. And simplicity, Leonardo da Vinci once stated, “Is the ultimate sophistication.”

What questions about cybersecurity do you have?

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Frank Negro is Global Practice Leader, Strategy and Planning, Healthcare and Life Sciences Solutions at Dell Services