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Securing Patient Health Records: How Penetration Testing Bolsters Healthcare Data Protection

Sanjiv Cherian

Sanjiv Cherian, Cyber Security Director
Oct 22, 2023

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How to Reduce Your Cyber Risk and Improve Patient Trust and Avoid Cyber Disruption: Test... Don't Guess Your Vulnerabilities

You started a business, not any business. One that takes care of people's health, your business is essential, but that makes it valuable, vulnerable, and visible, so it becomes a target. Your business cannot afford to be a target. You graduated from medical school under heavy student debt to help people.

Patient health information is arguably one of the most sensitive data types requiring stringent security and privacy. As healthcare providers increasingly adopt digital records and cloud-based systems, this data becomes more vulnerable. Medical identity theft increased by 22% from 2019 to 2020, according to the Medical Identity Fraud Alliance, with victims facing enormous personal and financial harm.

Healthcare organisations have a solemn duty to safeguard patient information. But far too often, security gaps expose sensitive data to compromise from both external and internal threats. Proactive cybersecurity measures are essential for identifying and closing these gaps before someone gains unauthorised access and exploits them. It is where targeted penetration testing provides immense value for strengthening healthcare data security and achieving compliance.

The High Costs of Healthcare Data Breaches 

Healthcare cyber attacks can have devastating consequences for patients and providers alike. According to IBM's Cost of a Data Breach Report, the average healthcare breach costs over $7 million between fines, legal damages, investigation expenses, and remediation costs. Major incidents can run into the hundreds of millions.

Beyond direct costs, breaches also inflict reputational damage, erode patient trust, and undermine privacy rights. Healthcare organisations found lagging in security often face public scrutiny and even class action lawsuits.

"Recent examples like the 2020 Blackbaud incident impacting multiple healthcare facilities demonstrate that even reputable institutions often overlook critical security flaws when handling compassionate medical data. Indeed, the healthcare sector reported the second-highest number of breaches among all industries in 2022."

The most common vulnerabilities enabling these breaches include:
- Unpatched EHR systems, medical devices, and legacy hardware vulnerable to exploitation and ransomware.
- Phishing and social engineering exposing staff credentials.
- Inadequate access controls enabling insider threats and unauthorised data theft.
- Poorly configured cloud databases and backups leading to exposure.
- Lack of encryption allowing uncontrolled access to patient information.
Addressing these oversights proactively with robust cybersecurity practices is imperative for avoiding disruptive and costly breaches that undermine patient care and trust, and this won't happen:

"MCNA Dental: In June 2023, MCNA Dental, a Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program service provider, suffered a major healthcare data breach that impacted over 8.9 million individuals."
"Banner Health: In August 2016, Banner Health suffered a data breach that impacted 3.62 million patients."
"Johns Hopkins Health System: In June 2023, Johns Hopkins Health System suffered a cyberattack and data breach that impacted thousands of other large organisations worldwide."

Gain Visibility with Penetration Testing

Penetration testing provides a powerful mechanism for healthcare organisations to identify overlooked security gaps and strengthen defences. Also known as ethical hacking, penetration testing involves authorised cybersecurity experts simulating real-world attacks to probe for weaknesses in systems and environments that malicious actors could potentially exploit.
The key goals of healthcare penetration testing include:

- Finding vulnerabilities like exposed servers, remote access risks, and defective network controls.
- Assessing endpoint and medical device security for flaws that enable ransomware or hacking.
- Evaluating staff susceptibility to phishing, pretexting, and other social engineering techniques.
- Uncovering application vulnerabilities in EHR portals, telehealth platforms, and other digital tools.
- Testing incident response plans and procedures for readiness.

Skilled penetration testers utilise the same tactics and tools that real attackers employ to uncover risks but do so in a controlled way with explicit permission from healthcare organisations. The valuable insights derived from testing enable hospital IT teams, medical clinics, and other providers to understand vulnerabilities in their environment objectively and intelligently prioritise mitigating the most significant risks.

Testing results also facilitate refining security processes, upgrading technologies like firewalls and endpoint detection, expanding staff training, and addressing policy gaps to enhance organisational resilience.

Why Penetration Testing Matters for Healthcare

Healthcare penetration testing provides multifaceted benefits for hospitals, clinics, behavioural health facilities, dentists, and other covered entities:

Identifying Unknown Risks

Many security risks can lurk undetected over time, allowing attackers to exploit them. Pen testing proactively uncovers these defects. For instance, a test could reveal an internet-facing patient records database protected only by weak or default credentials. Finding such flaws before criminals do is vital.

Achieving Continuous Compliance
Healthcare regulations like HIPAA, HITECH, and state laws mandate periodic risk assessments to identify and address security deficiencies. Independent penetration tests provide concrete validation of compliance efforts while also strengthening protection. ing protection.
Increasing Patient Trust
Patients expect healthcare organisations to be responsible stewards and advocates of their compassionate information. Investing in robust security practices like pen testing builds patient confidence and trust.
Preventing Reputational Damage
Major breaches bring steep reputational costs in the form of public scrutiny, patient attrition, and reputational harm. Proactive pen testing reduces the chances of preventable incidents that erode public confidence.
Guiding Security Investments
Penetration tests produce objective data that can optimise budget allocation on closing security gaps, whether allocating funds towards technology upgrades, policy changes, security training, or shoring up deficiencies.
Meeting Vendor Risk Obligations
With extensive third-party vendor access to internal healthcare systems, penetration testing helps fulfil due diligence requirements around actively managing this risk exposure.
Satisfying Insurance Requirements
Cyber insurance carriers often stipulate comprehensive penetration testing requirements to qualify healthcare organisations for preferential pricing and complete risk coverage.
Verifying Existing Security
Testing provides unbiased outside validation of security measures like firewalls, encryption, and endpoint protection controls deployed to safeguard healthcare environments.
Top corporations and government agencies rely on regular penetration tests to harden defences. Healthcare organisations charged with managing compassionate protected health information should be no exception.

Penetration Testing Methodologies

To provide maximum security insights, comprehensive penetration testing programs utilise a range of methods simulating real-world attack tactics: tactics:tactics:
Network Testing
probes internal and external healthcare technology infrastructure for exposed systems, unpatched software vulnerabilities, and defective network access controls.
Social Engineering Testing
evaluates the susceptibility of healthcare staff to phishing, vishing (voice phishing), smishing (SMS phishing), and USB drop attacks designed to steal credentials or data.
Application Testing
targets software vulnerabilities within EHR portals, telehealth platforms, medical IoT devices, and other digital tools that could lead to compromise. ld lead to compromise.
Mobile App Testing
assesses vulnerabilities within patient-facing mobile apps and employee mobile devices, a frequently overlooked risk vector.
Physical Testing
attempts unauthorised facility access, such as tampering with systems housing protected health information.
Wireless Testing
finds weaknesses in Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth connections, and other wireless technology controls that could enable access to otherwise protected systems.
Cloud Infrastructure Testing
verifies the configuration and security of cloud hosting environments used for EHR hosting, backup storage, etc., to prevent data exposure.

Experienced penetration testers will utilise this range of tactics and methods to assess an organisation's vulnerabilities comprehensively.

Implementing a Healthcare Penetration Testing Program

To maximise value from testing initiatives, healthcare CIOs, CISOs, and other leaders should take a strategic approach: 

Conduct Annual Assessments
Annual penetration testing regularly audits existing security practices, cyber hygiene, and monitoring capabilities across the enterprise—Prioritise tests based on known high-risk areas and systems.
Combine Internal and External Testing
Third-party firms provide independent testing perspectives, while internal red/blue team testing builds organisational talent. Use both for optimal results.
Test Production Systems
While staging environments are helpful for some testing, real-world production systems best replicate actual conditions and users. It optimises the reliability of results.
Demand Transparency
Require full disclosure of all testing activities and detailed reporting of findings to facilitate remediation of all vulnerabilities detected.
Re-Test to Validate
Conduct follow-up penetration testing after implemented fixes to verify risks have been acceptably mitigated or eliminated.
Drive Accountability
Ensure IT security teams take ownership of comprehensively remediating findings, with oversight from leadership to enforce fixing high-risk vulnerabilities on a timely basis.
Focus on High-Risk Areas First
Concentrate initial testing on assets storing patient medical records, including EHR systems, medical devices, cloud repositories, and databases.

For the most significant impact, healthcare penetration testing should be implemented as an ongoing program addressing various threats, not just a one-time exercise.

Partnering with Cybersecurity MicrominderCS

Healthcare CIOs and other leaders often lack internal penetration testing expertise. Engaging qualified third-party cybersecurity firms offers valuable capabilities:

Proven Methodologies
Experienced penetration testing consultants bring sophisticated processes honed across hundreds of engagements spanning diverse industries and clients. Look for providers adhering to NIST standards.
Technical Excellence
The top firms employ specialists boasting Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP), Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH), and other advanced certifications demonstrating cutting-edge technical penetration testing skills.
Healthcare Experience
Given the unique and compassionate environment, specifically look for firms with extensive healthcare penetration testing experience. Avoid generalists lacking healthcare expertise.
Actionable Reporting
Quality cybersecurity partners deliver clear, prioritised recommendations mapped to industry standards like NIST and HIPAA to facilitate effective remediation by healthcare IT teams.
Ongoing Advisory
Optimise the value of penetration testing via advisory services to implement recommendations and strengthen organisational defences over the long term.

Leading healthcare cybersecurity providers like MicrominderCS have the talent, expertise, and dedicated practices to help secure sensitive patient health data. We deliver on what we promise so you can focus on assisting people to grow your business and do what you do best.
To give you context on how we eased our clients' minds and let them do what they do best. We tested Eleven thousand Web & Mobile Apps, and 99% Of our recent pen tests identified vulnerabilities. And 59% of them contained critical and high risks. We remediated Nine thousand business risks last year. 40% Were access and authentication-related issues.

The Bottom Line Your Business Must Keep In Mind

As healthcare continues rapid digitisation, it must similarly accelerate cybersecurity transformation centred around protecting sensitive patient information. Targeted penetration testing provides deep visibility into overlooked risks needed to harden defences and prevent breaches.

Testing combined with advisory services gives healthcare leaders the expertise and support to implement layered defences tailored to address risks unique to their environment. It drives more innovative investments in countering the most urgent threats.

Ultimately, reducing preventable security incidents comes down to recognising cybersecurity as an enterprise-wide strategic priority, not just an IT issue. Healthcare organisations should be responsible stewards of patient data. Proactive penetration testing is crucial in fulfilling that duty while meeting expanding compliance requirements. Partnering with qualified experts facilitates regular assessment of vulnerabilities to strengthen data protection and earn patient trust. Contact us to book a call and join six thousand+ businesses now to protect your customers' data and your business's reputation.

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