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The digitalization of the healthcare sector unlocks endless potential for improving patient care, expanding drug research, and optimizing costs. Despite numerous benefits to the industry, physicians, and patients, tethering each device to the internet and exchanging data poses an elevated cyber threat. Data security is an important topic regardless of the industry, but healthcare is especially vulnerable to online risks. 

Do you need upgraded IT infrastructure services or extensive employee training? In this article, we’ll discuss the risk factors that healthcare organizations have to face and how to protect patient and health data.

What is Healthcare Data Security?

Data security in healthcare refers to a set of guidelines, regulations, and measures to safeguard private and sensitive information from unauthorized users. The measures range from quality assurance services, data audits, and risk assessments to various security applications and policies. 

Healthcare institutions are especially susceptible to cybercrime due to the type of data they collect and store. This elevated level of risk forces companies to strictly adhere to data protection laws and adopt various healthcare data security practices.

The industry-standard cybersecurity rules include HIPAA in the US and GDPR in Europe. Although there are other guidelines that healthcare organizations need to comply with, these two are at the center of the topic.

HIPAA stands for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and acts as the national standard for protecting electronic health records from people with bad intentions. The law describes how to safely collect, store, and transmit health information, as well as safeguard patient data. The information includes names, birth dates, phone numbers, addresses, social security numbers, images, biometric data, etc.

GDPR stands for General Data Protection Regulation and enforces data privacy across industries, including healthcare. Similarly to its US counterpart, GDPR describes the ways of gathering and storing information without infringing on people’s rights and exposing data.

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4 Most Common Healthcare Data Threats

Unfortunately, the threat of data breaches is rising every year, having doubled since 2018. Even though healthcare data security technologies are adapting to the changing landscape and trying to improve the level of protection, hackers continue to find new ways of accessing private data.

Healthcare data security


Phishing emails are types of cyberattacks that trick the user into disclosing sensitive data. Four out of five medical employees cannot recognize a phishing email while 88% of them opened such an email at least once. This horrendous statistic shows that phishing emails are incredibly effective and continue to be among the top methods of cybercrime.

Malware and Ransomware Attacks

Compromised credentials and system vulnerabilities are common causes of malware and ransomware attacks. Although surveys reveal that the ransomware rate decreased in 2023 compared to 2022, looking at the wider time window shows that it’s still very dominant. In this type of cybercrime, hackers utilize various malware to take over the control of the computer or network and demand a ransom in exchange for giving access back up.

DDoS Attacks

Distributed denial-of-service is another widespread form of cyberattack that can lead to devastating data breaches. By overwhelming the system with false user requests, criminals can interrupt the usual operation and cause considerable damage to the hospital and patients. For example, a pro-Russian hacking group called KillNet has been consistently targeting Western healthcare institutions aiming to disrupt their work. These attacks take long to fix and cause monetary losses, not to mention the harm that patients experience from such disruptions.

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Sensitive Data in Healthcare

Many healthcare organizations collect and keep sensitive patient data, health records, and financial information, all of which put a big target on their business. In this section, we’ll explore the various types of data that make these institutions so vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Healthcare data security
  • Electronic Health Records (EHRs) refer to patient medical history in electronic form. Designed to optimize and simplify medical processes and improve patient experience, EHRs contain sensitive patient information pertaining to diagnoses, treatments, allergies, test results, etc. Securing data that stores medical history is an integral part of cyber security measures as it’s directly connected to HIPAA regulations.
  • Personal Identifiable Information (PII) is personal patient data that includes names, dates, addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers, and more. Basically, it’s any data that might help someone identify the person in question. Similarly to EHRs, this confidential patient data needs to be protected with data encryption, authentication, and other healthcare data security practices.
  • Medical research data is information sourced from clinical trials and databases that aid physicians in public health management, drug discovery, and more. Based on real cases, this information may contain personal and medical patient data that needs to be anonymized to protect their privacy.
  • Financial data deals with medical bills, insurance claims, payment records, and other healthcare-related information. All of these records may involve personal information about the patient that can expose their identity to hackers. Moreover, their financial data can be stolen and used for extortion, fraud, and ransom.

Handling large volumes of highly sensitive information puts healthcare organizations at constant risk of cybercrime. Besides the type of data healthcare providers deal with, there is a plethora of other factors that may affect data security in healthcare.

Healthcare Data Security Risk Factors

Aside from being an enticing target for hacking attacks, the healthcare industry is more susceptible to cybercrime for a range of factors. Being a highly conservative and regulated field, any changes take ages to implement which does not go hand in hand with the fast-paced world of technology. In this part, we’ll dive into the most prominent healthcare data risk factors that can jeopardize your security.

Healthcare data security

Legacy Systems

According to the HIMSS Cybersecurity Survey Report 2021, 73% of healthcare providers still utilize legacy operating systems. In fact, legacy technology is among hospitals’ biggest security challenges. Such systems are outdated and cannot be easily brought up to speed with modern applications. Healthcare data security companies provide legacy modernization services but these take a lot of time and money to execute.

Unlike modern software solutions that launch regular updates and security patches to eliminate vulnerabilities, legacy software is significantly more exposure-prone. From outdated applications and archaic network protocols to old operating systems, operating using such software poses a grand risk to the company’s security.

The Rise of IoMT

The Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) is among the latest trends in healthcare. While internet-connected medical devices offer lifesaving services to their owners, they can pose an additional threat to the integrity of healthcare data. Especially after the device has run its course and the vendor stopped releasing updates, the information can become accessible to bad actors.

Email Scams

Hackers can take advantage of busy and chaotic hospital schedules to gain access to their data. Various social engineering practices help cybercriminals successfully trick email recipients into clicking the link or revealing sensitive data. Both lack of training and busy hospital environment work in their favor and as a result, they receive information only authorized users should have access to.

Large Amount of Employees

Healthcare organizations tend to employ hundreds if not thousands of workers, not to mention various contractors, vendors, and partners. Managing and security training large amounts of people is challenging. Typically, the more employees a company has, the higher the risk of data breaches.

Unsecured Wireless Networks

While digitization serves an important role in healthcare organizations, making the system more accessible and usable, it also opens the door to potential attacks. By exploiting network vulnerabilities, hackers can access patient data and use it for monetary gain.

Weak Passwords

Even when it comes to personal cyber security, surveys reveal that many users continue setting simple passwords that can be tracked within minutes or even seconds. The unfortunate truth is that even one employee with a weak passcode can jeopardize the entire database of patient information. Healthcare providers need to educate their workers on how to select secure passwords and what differentiates between good and bad credentials.

Lack of Security Training

The alarming statistic that the majority of medical workers cannot recognize a phishing email is largely the fault of healthcare organizations. In order to educate the employees and increase the safety of the company’s data, companies need to provide regular healthcare data security training sessions.

Employ Cybersecurity Best Practices

Over the decades of technological progress, data security specialists have developed a number of best practices that protect data from intruders:

Healthcare data security

Data Encryption 

Data encryption allows healthcare professionals to protect patient data by translating it from plaintext to ciphertext. Using an encryption key, specialists can safely access the information.

Multi-factor Authentication

Enabling multi-factor authentication adds an extra layer of protection when granting access to the systems, networks, and applications. Besides the password, users need to go through an additional step like a one-time passcode, token, or biometric data scan.

System Monitoring Apps

These apps track the overall health of the IT performance. Designed to optimize system security and performance, system monitoring apps detect current issues, collect data about different bottlenecks, and offer insights into the health status of the IT infrastructure.

Anti-virus Programs

Anti-virus programs continuously monitor your systems and alert you whenever a virus or malware is identified. Additionally, these applications check new downloads for viruses to ensure nothing malicious makes its way to the computer.

Steps to Improve Data Security in Healthcare

Lastly, let’s investigate a set of best practices that will help you avoid cyberattacks and mitigate them if they happen to occur. In this part, we’ll take a look at the plan of action that will aid you in instilling robust data security for healthcare. 

Healthcare data security

Enhance Access Control Management

A successful data security strategy includes robust access control management that dictates who is allowed to see what information. Over-granting access to information is not only unnecessary but leads to data breaches and leaks. Your permission control should clearly define which employee is allowed to read, edit, and delete what information.

For example, a billing specialist may need access to personal patient records to learn their financial data, names, addresses, insurance companies, etc. However, they would not require data pertaining to test results, diagnoses, and other sensitive medical data. Similarly, a physician would not need the patient’s address or bank account information to do their job.

Run Regular Risk Assessments

As medical technology grows and grants clinicians more sophisticated tools, so does the risk of potential security threats. With every new robotic helper, remote monitoring device, and data visualization tool, healthcare workers open an extra door to a cyberattack. In order to safeguard medical records and other data, hospitals need to perform continuous risk assessments.

An effective risk assessment involves identifying potential internal or external threats to the healthcare organization. Later, you should gauge the likelihood and severity of such risks and prioritize them accordingly. Based on this list, you can develop strategies for dealing with potential threats: mitigation, avoidance, retention, transfer, and sharing.

Regular risk assessments are integral to data security for the healthcare sector. Dealing with risks preemptively allows healthcare professionals to be prepared for the worst-case scenario and make the smartest and timeliest decisions.

Organize Employee Training

Since 74% of cyberattacks occur due to the human element, hosting regular training sessions can significantly improve your data security in healthcare. Without proper education, healthcare workers can unknowingly open suspicious emails, download malicious programs, or leave their computers unattended.

At the same time, continuous training sessions will teach your employees how to recognize malicious intent and how to deal with such emails, messages, and texts. Research shows that 80% of healthcare organizations report a noticeable reduction in phishing susceptibility after security awareness training.

In the education process, focus on phishing, malware, and ransomware attacks as they are at the top of the list of common cybercrime. Furthermore, teach them about social engineering practices and how to spot malicious emails, attachments, and programs. Although organizing data security for healthcare awareness training demands an investment, it will certainly pay off.

Adopt a Zero-trust Security Policy

A zero-trust policy is among the security measures designed to safeguard personal health information and secure healthcare data. Based on the concept of trusting no one regardless of the source, the zero-trust practice requires verification before granting connection to healthcare systems.

The ever-growing IT infrastructure within hospitals makes it impossible to maintain full visibility over each element. Instead, you can force every application and service to go through verification to understand where they’re coming from.

Prepare Backup and Recovery Plans

Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try to prevent and stop cyberattacks from happening, the chance of someone breaking through persists. The best way of mitigating this risk is to be prepared for any scenario by developing a security incident response plan. Such a plan should include data backups, disaster recovery, and emergency mode operations.

Without a comprehensive recovery plan not only are you forced to pay HIPAA violation penalties, but also for lost data. For instance, an NHS, Britain’s National Health Service, hacker attack in 2017 resulted in 19,000 canceled appointments which could have been easily recovered using a data backup.

In case of a cyberattack, follow the checklist:

  • Start the security incident response plan and follow the steps as instructed.
  • Gather and record the evidence in order to improve your security measures as well as to possibly report the attackers.
  • Contain the breach by shutting down all the systems and networks connected to the infected system.
  • After the attack is mitigated, focus on checking employees’ devices and removing malware and viruses.

Partner with a Seasoned Agency

Finally, healthcare organizations can collaborate with an experienced IT agency to establish a high level of security. Make sure your future partner has proven experience in healthcare data security solutions by checking their healthcare success stories. Additionally, it’s imperative to test their communication skills and gauge their overall cultural fitness.


Data security in healthcare is a challenging topic that requires a deep understanding of both the medical industry and the cybersecurity sphere. If you would like to improve your security in software development or empower your existing infrastructure, reach out to NIX. We’re a team of healthcare data security experts with decades of developing and modernizing robust software solutions. Our approach puts the client at the center and prioritizes the latest technologies and utmost security. Get in touch with us to discuss your needs and realize your ideas together.

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Natalie Tkachenko Head of Client Services | Custom Software for Healthcare

Natalie is a HIPAA-certified expert with high-grade knowledge in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries with 5+ years of experience. She helps CIOs, CTOs of medical organizations, and founders of agile healthtech startups get the most valuable tech solutions for fundamental digital reinforcement in patient care, automation of operational processes, and overall business progress.


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