Bridging the Gap Between Compliance and IT Security in Healthcare

Healthcare industry has the highest per capita cost of data breach than any other sector


It should come as no surprise that the per capita cost of a data breach is much higher for heavily regulated industries such as healthcare, financial and pharmaceuticals than for those less regulated, like retail and public services. But what might be surprising is that according to the 2013 Ponemon Cost of Data Breach Study, healthcare has surpassed the financial industry and now bears the highest cost of all – 70 percent above the overall mean value.

With the update last year to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and HITECH Act of 2009, the cost will likely continue to increase. The annual cap on fines for security breaches has now increased from a maximum of $25,000 per year to $1.5 million. And fines are only part of the financial burden. Investigation and legal efforts, business downtime and decreased credibility all drive up costs even further.

Costs aren’t the only aspect of security on the rise – cyber threats are as well. According to the Cisco 2014 Annual Security Report, threat alerts grew 14 percent year-over-year. Whether a breach is a result of actions by an insider or a targeted attack from outside the organization, the goal is to find and stop the breach as quickly as possible to minimize damage.

But many healthcare organizations are challenged to effectively communicate and collaborate when it comes to security. In many of these organizations there is a department for privacy and compliance and then a separate department for enterprise IT security. Functional groups are often siloed and share very little information with each other. This becomes a major issue in the event of a breach as neither side is able to understand the full spectrum of the threat without the others’ data. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

These days we hear a lot about insider threats. An individual’s actions may look legitimate but when correlated with some other activity, it could indicate that malicious activity is occurring. A workstation that has always accessed clinical data or some other patient information doesn’t raise suspicion. But a subtle, steady increase in traffic, say of five or 10 percent, correlated with communication to an unauthorized or new IP address, likely indicates a breach. The same example could apply to an external threat with a malicious actor using social engineering methods to entice an unwitting user to download malware. Once inside the network, the malware can replicate the very same scenario. Either way, a breach has occurred. The IT security department may discover the situation, investigate and handle it and move on to the next task. But without visibility into this type of data, how would the compliance department learn about a possible data leakage and take the necessary steps to investigate and report?

On the flip side, the compliance department is the only group authorized to see private and sensitive patient data so there are very strong access controls to protect that information. But the compliance department doesn’t have the training or tools to spot unusual system activity. While the IT security department should not have access to privacy data, certain data can be summarized and presented to IT security without disclosing any sensitive information. Specifically, system data, such as total number of accesses by hosts or by role on a machine, won’t disclose patient records or clinical data but could indicate a potential breach and initiate an investigation.

It cuts both ways. For either side of the organization, limited data visibility and collaboration hampers the ability to identify a breach and, in turn, limit losses.

Technology and compliance leaders at healthcare organizations need to take a holistic approach to security risk management to allow for true visibility and full spectrum threat remediation.However, with limited budgets and priorities often, and rightfully, placed on patient care, many healthcare organizations lack the resources to take the necessary steps. Despite these constraints, with the right technology and best practices in place healthcare organizations can position themselves for success.

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