By Michelle Drolet
In an era where data breaches and cyber threats loom, the security of patient information in plastic surgery practices (PSPs) is more critical than ever. Envision a scenario where, in a mere moment, the confidential data of your patients is at risk, posing a serious threat to the trust they place in your practice and to the ethical integrity of your operations. This situation is not a mere speculative exercise; it’s a critical, real-world issue that necessitates prompt and effective countermeasures.
After all, says Mark D. Epstein, MD, FACS, a dual-board-certified plastic surgeon in Hauppauge, N.Y., “As plastic surgeons, we are responsible for highly sensitive data but also tend to lack the necessary knowledge and skill set to safely protect it from unauthorized access and exfiltration.”
Integrating technology in healthcare has been a boon for PSPs, enhancing patient care and operational efficiency. However, this digital transformation brings an increased risk of cyber threats. A staggering American Medical Association (AMA) statistic reveals that approximately 83% of physicians have experienced cyberattacks. This reality places an immense responsibility on PSPs to understand and actively combat these risks.
Cybersecurity in PSPs goes beyond protecting data; it is fundamentally about safeguarding patient trust and your practice’s reputation. The implications of a breach are profound, ranging from legal liabilities to irreparable damage to patient relationships. According to the IBM Cost of a Data Breach Report, the healthcare sector saw an average data breach cost of $11 million, the lion’s share being the theft of PPI files.
These statistics are not just numbers but a clarion call for PSPs to strengthen their cybersecurity posture. Below are seven actionable steps to secure your practice against ever-evolving cyber threats. Each step is tailored to be practical and achievable, ensuring that your journey toward enhanced cybersecurity is successful and sustainable.
1. Build a Cybersecurity Program Built on Risk
The foundation of a robust cybersecurity strategy lies in understanding and mitigating risks. Begin by conducting a thorough risk assessment and identifying system and process vulnerabilities. This could range from weak passwords to unsecured Wi-Fi networks. A cybersecurity program should include regular updates to your software systems, strict access controls, and frequent training of staff on cybersecurity best practices.
Remember: Breaches can result not only from external attacks but also from internal oversights.Per HIPAA, maintaining patient confidentiality is an ethical and legal obligation. So, ensure your cybersecurity measures align with HIPAA guidelines.
2. Invest in the Right Technological Controls
Incorporating the right technological tools is essential in safeguarding your practice from cyber threats. Invest in endpoint protection, access control policies, next-generation firewalls, and strong intrusion detection systems. These mechanisms are essential as key defenses in case of a possible cyberattack. Additionally, consider implementing secure, encrypted communication channels for sharing patient data, especially when involving telemedicine.
Regular data backups are also vital; in the event of data loss due to a cyberattack, having a recent backup can be the difference between a quick recovery and a prolonged, costly disruption. While the investment in these technologies may seem substantial, the cost of a data breach—financially and in terms of patient trust—can be far more significant.
3. Take Account of Compliance and Regulations
For PSPs, compliance with health data regulations isn’t just a legal mandate; it’s a cornerstone of patient trust. In 2021, the healthcare industry faced over 22% of all data breaches, emphasizing the need for stringent compliance measures. Failing to adhere to regulations may result in significant financial repercussions. For instance, penalties for violating HIPAA standards can escalate to as much as $1.5 million annually.
PSPs must routinely carry out evaluations and reviews of their data management procedures to guarantee adherence to compliance standards. This includes evaluating how patient information is stored, accessed, and shared. Encryption of patient data, both in transit and at rest, becomes non-negotiable. Additionally, it’s vital to stay informed about changing state and federal regulations in response to emerging cyber threats. By embedding compliance into your cybersecurity strategy, you safeguard your practice against legal repercussions and reinforce your commitment to patient confidentiality.
4. Train Staff on Cybersecurity Hygiene
Your staff is the first and last line of defense against cyber threats. Astonishingly, human error contributes to 90% of all cybersecurity breaches. Therefore, comprehensive training in cybersecurity hygiene is essential. This training should cover basics like strong password policies, phishing attempt recognition, and safe internet practices.
Regular training sessions, updated with the latest cybersecurity trends and threats, are necessary. For instance, with the rise in telehealth services, staff must be adept at handling patient data securely over digital platforms. Moreover, instilling a culture of cybersecurity awareness can significantly reduce the risk of breaches caused by internal mistakes.
5. Have a Vendor Risk Management Program in Place
The increasing reliance on third-party vendors for various services, including EHR systems and cloud storage, introduces new vulnerabilities into your cybersecurity framework. A startling statistic from the Ponemon Institute reveals that 54% of companies have experienced a data breach caused by a third party.
Implementing a comprehensive vendor risk management program is imperative. Start by conducting thorough due diligence before onboarding any new vendor, evaluating their cybersecurity status and compliance with applicable regulations. Continuous monitoring and periodic audits of existing vendors are equally important to ensure they maintain the required security standards. Establishing clear contracts with vendors, outlining their cybersecurity responsibilities, and protocols for incident response is also vital.
6. Pen Test Defenses Regularly
Penetration testing (or pen testing) is a simulated cyberattack against your network to check for exploitable vulnerabilities. In the context of a PSP, regular pen testing is not just a proactive measure, but a necessity. Pen testing should be conducted annually by a third party or whenever significant changes are made to your IT infrastructure.
This process is crucial for revealing vulnerabilities that hackers might leverage, including outdated software, inadequate encryption, or substandard security protocols. If you actively look for and fix these weak spots, there is a much lower chance of a serious cyberattack that could compromise private patient information and hurt the credibility of your practice.
7. Consider Cyber Insurance
Cyber insurance has become an essential layer of protection for businesses, including PSPs. Cyber insurance plays a pivotal role in lessening the economic consequences of cyberattack by providing coverage for expenses associated with data breaches, ransomware attacks, and disruptions in business operations.
When choosing cyber insurance, ensure it covers immediate expenses (e.g., forensics and legal fees) and indirect financial impacts (like business disruptions and reputation management).
According to IBM, the typical expense incurred from a data breach averages $4.45 million. That’s why having a robust cyber insurance policy cannot be overstated. This element is vital in your comprehensive approach to cybersecurity, offering both financial security and reassurance.
“Setting aside an adequate budget for cybersecurity protection is difficult,” says plastic surgeon Mark D. Epstein. “If you don’t need it, it will seem like money wasted. But if you need it and you don’t have it, the consequences can be dire. While having every defense imaginable would be ideal, it’s also not feasible.”
Cybersecurity extends beyond mere data protection—it encompasses the preservation of patient trust and their overall welfare. From building a risk-based cybersecurity program, to investing in technology controls, to understanding compliance and training staff, a robust defense strategy will reinforce the commitment to providing safe, confidential, and high-quality care. “Working with the right cybersecurity consultants can help you use your available budget in the most efficient way,” Epstein adds. “It’s all about mitigating risk; no matter how hard you try, you will never eliminate it completely.”
Michelle Drolet is CEO of Towerwall, a specialized cybersecurity consulting firm offering security and compliance services.