Medical Device Security At A Crossroads

Posted on April 28, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

As anyone reading this knows, connected medical devices are vulnerable to attacks from outside malware. Security researchers have been warning healthcare IT leaders for years that network-connected medical devices had poor security in place, ranging from image repository backups with no passwords to CT scanners with easily-changed configuration files, but far too many problems haven’t been addressed.

So why haven’t providers addressed the security problems? It may be because neither medical device manufacturers nor hospitals are set up to address these issues. “The reality is both sides — providers and manufacturers — do not understand how much the other side does not know,” said John Gomez, CEO of cybersecurity firm Sensato. “When I talk with manufacturers, they understand the need to do something, but they have never had to deal with cyber security before. It’s not a part of their DNA. And on the hospital side, they’re realizing that they’ve never had to lock these things down. In fact, medical devices have not even been part of the IT group and hospitals.

Gomez, who spoke with Healthcare IT News, runs one of two companies backing a new initiative dedicated to securing medical devices and health organizations. (The other coordinating company is healthcare security firm Divurgent.)

Together, the two have launched the Medical Device Cybersecurity Task Force, which brings together a grab bag of industry players including hospitals, hospital technologists, medical device manufacturers, cyber security researchers and IT leaders. “We continually get asked by clients with the best practices for securing medical devices,” Gomez told Healthcare IT News. “There is little guidance and a lot of misinformation.“

The task force includes 15 health systems and hospitals, including Children’s Hospital of Atlanta, Lehigh Valley Health Network, Beebe Healthcare and Intermountain, along with tech vendors Renovo Solutions, VMware Inc. and AirWatch.

I mention this initiative not because I think it’s huge news, but rather, as a reminder that the time to act on medical device vulnerabilities is more than nigh. There’s a reason why the Federal Trade Commission, and the HHS Office of Inspector General, along with the IEEE, have launched their own initiatives to help medical device manufacturers boost cybersecurity. I believe we’re at a crossroads; on one side lies renewed faith in medical devices, and on the other nothing less than patient privacy violations, harm and even death.

It’s good to hear that the Task Force plans to create a set of best practices for both healthcare providers and medical device makers which will help get their cybersecurity practices up to snuff. Another interesting effort they have underway in the creation of an app which will help healthcare providers evaluate medical devices, while feeding a database that members can access to studying the market.

But reading about their efforts also hammered home to me how much ground we have to cover in securing medical devices. Well-intentioned, even relatively effective, grassroots efforts are good, but they’re only a drop in the bucket. What we need is nothing less than a continuous knowledge feed between medical device makers, hospitals, clinics and clinicians.

And why not start by taking the obvious step of integrating the medical device and IT departments to some degree? That seems like a no-brainer. But unfortunately, the rest of the work to be done will take a lot of thought.