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More Than 1.1 Million Patient Records Breached During Q1 of 2018

Posted on May 14, 2018 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.

Well, this isn’t a pretty picture. According to research by Protenus, roughly 1.3 million patient records were breached between January and March of this year. (The actual number is 1,129,744 records, for those who like to be precise.)

During that quarter, the healthcare industry saw an average of at least one data breach per day, racking up 110 health data breaches during this period, according to the Protenus Breach Barometer.

The researchers found that the single largest breach taking place during Q1 2018 was an intrusion involving an Oklahoma-based healthcare organization. The breach, which exposed patient billing information for 279,856 patients, resulted from an unauthorized third-party gaining access to the health system’s network.

If you assume that the other breaches were also executed by external cyberattackers, think again. According to the data, healthcare staffers represented a far bigger risk of being involved with security violations.

The data suggests that such insiders were most likely to illegally access data on the family members, a problem which accounted for 77.1% of privacy violations in the first quarter of this year. Accessing records on coworkers was the second most common insider-related violation, followed by accessing neighbor and VIP records.

Not only that, Protenus researchers found that if a healthcare employee breaches patient privacy once, there’s a greater than 20% chance they will breach privacy again in three months’ time. Worse, there’s a greater than 54% chance they will do so again in a years’ time. That’s a pretty nasty form of compounding risk.

Not only that, do healthcare institutions catch breaches right away? According to Protenus research, it takes healthcare organizations an average of 244 days to detect breaches once they take place. As readers know, some of these events involve information being exposed to the Internet, offering private information to the public via an unprotected interface. Also pretty ugly, and also a source of lousy PR for the organization.

This research is a sobering follow-up to the company’s year-end report for 2017. Last year, according to Protenus research, there was an average of one health data breach per year in 2017. The 407 incidents it identified affected 5,579,438 patient records.

The largest breach taking place in last year involved a rogue insider, a hospital employee, who inappropriately accessed billing information on 697,800 patients. The rest of the top 10 largest data breaches largely sprang from insider errors.

Wow. If it wasn’t evident already, it’s pretty clear now that healthcare organizations need to tighten up their internal data security measures and training substantially.

While there will always be some folks who want to snoop on celebrity records to find imaging medical information on their ex, and some who plan to sell the information outright, a greater number simply need to be reminded what the rules are. (Or so I assume and fervently hope.)

Nearly 6 Million Patient Records Breached In 2017

Posted on February 1, 2018 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.

Just how bad a year was 2017 for health data? According to one study, it was 5.6 million patient records bad.

According to health data security firm Protenus, which partnered with DataBreaches.net to conduct its research, last year saw an average of at least one health data breach per day. The researchers based their analysis on 477 health data breaches reported to the public last year.

While Protenus only had 407 such incidents, those alone affected 5,579,438 patient records. The gross number of exposed records fell dramatically from 2016, which saw 27.3 million records compromised by breaches. However, the large number of records exposed in 2016 stems from the fact that there were a few massive incidents that year.

According to researchers, the largest breach reported in 2017 stemmed from a rogue insider, a hospital employee who inappropriately accessed billing information on 697,800 patients. The rest of the top 10 largest data breaches sprung from insider errors, hacking, and one other incident involving insider wrongdoing.

Insider wrongdoing seems to be a particular problem, accounting for 37% of the total number of breaches last year. These insider incidents affected 30% of compromised patient data, or more than 1.7 million records.

As bad as those stats may be, however, ransomware and malware seem to be even bigger threats. As the study notes, last year a tidal wave of hacking incidents involving malware and ransomware hit healthcare organizations.

Not surprisingly, last year’s wave of attacks seems to be part of a larger trend. According to a Malwarebytes report, ransomware attacks on businesses overall increased 90 percent last year, led by GlobeImposter and WannaCry incidents.

That being said, healthcare appears to be a particularly popular target for cybercriminals. In 2016, healthcare organizations reported 30 incidents of ransomware and malware attacks, and last year, 64 organizations reported attacks of this kind. While the increase in ransomware reports could be due to organizations being more careful about reporting such incidents, researchers warn that the volume of such attacks may be growing.

So what does this suggest about the threat landscape going forward?  In short, it doesn’t seem likely the situation will improve much over the next 12 months. The report suggests that last year’s trend of one breach per day should continue this year. Moreover, we may see a growth in the number of incidents reported to HHS, though again, this could be because the industry is getting better at breach detection.

If nothing else, one might hope that healthcare organizations get better at detecting attacks quickly. Researchers noted that of the 144 healthcare data breaches for which they have data, it took an average of 308 days for the organization to find out about the breach. Surely we can do better than this.

The Need for Speed (In Breach Protection)

Posted on April 26, 2016 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Robert Lord, Co-founder and CEO of Protenus.
Robert Protenus
The speed at which a hospital can detect a privacy breach could mean the difference between a brief, no-penalty notification and a multi-million dollar lawsuit.  This month it was reported that health information from 2,000 patients was exposed when a Texas hospital took four months to identify a data breach caused by an independent healthcare provider.  A health system in New York similarly took two months to determine that 2,500 patient records may have been exposed as a result of a phishing scam and potential breach reported two months prior.

The rise in reported breaches this year, from phishing scams to stolen patient information, only underscores the risk of lag times between breach detection and resolution. Why are lags of months and even years so common? And what can hospitals do to better prepare against threats that may reach the EHR layer?

Traditional compliance and breach detection tools are not nearly as effective as they need to be. The most widely used methods of detection involve either infrequent random audits or extensive manual searches through records following a patient complaint. For example, if a patient suspects that his medical record has been inappropriately accessed, a compliance officer must first review EMR data from the various systems involved.  Armed with a highlighter (or a large excel spreadsheet), the officer must then analyze thousands of rows of access data, and cross-reference this information with the officer’s implicit knowledge about the types of people who have permission to view that patient’s records. Finding an inconsistency – a person who accessed the records without permission – can take dozens of hours of menial work per case.  Another issue with investigating breaches based on complaints is that there is often no evidence that the breach actually occurred. Nonetheless, the hospital is legally required to investigate all claims in a timely manner, and such investigations are costly and time-consuming.

According to a study by the Ponemon Institute, it takes an average of 87 days from the time a breach occurs to the time the officer becomes aware of the problem, and, given the arduous task at hand, it then takes another 105 days for the officer to resolve the issue. In total, it takes approximately 6 months from the time a breach occurs to the time the issue is resolved. Additionally, if a data breach occurs but a patient does not notice, it could take months – or even years – for someone to discover the problem. And of course, the longer it takes the hospital to identify a problem, the higher the cost of identifying how the breach occurred and remediating the situation.

In 2013, Rouge Valley Centenary Hospital in Scarborough, Canada, revealed that the contact information of approximately 8,300 new mothers had been inappropriately accessed by two employees. Since 2009, the two employees had been selling the contact information of new mothers to a private company specializing in Registered Education Savings Plans (RESPs). Some of the patients later reported that days after coming home from the hospital with their newborn child, they started receiving calls from sales representatives at the private RESP company. Marketing representatives were extremely aggressive, and seemed to know the exact date of when their child had been born.

The most terrifying aspect of this story is how the hospital was able to find out about the data breach: remorse and human error! One employee voluntarily turned himself in, while the other accidentally left patient records on a printer. Had these two events not happened, the scam could have continued for much longer than the four years it did before it was finally discovered.

Rouge Valley Hospital is currently facing a $412 million dollar lawsuit over this breach of privacy. Arguably even more damaging, is that they have lost the trust of their patients who relied on the hospital for care and confidentiality of their medical treatments.

As exemplified by the ramifications of the Rouge Valley Hospital breach and the new breaches discovered almost weekly in hospitals around the world, the current tools used to detect privacy breaches in electronic health records are not sufficient. A system needs to have the ability to detect when employees are accessing information outside their clinical and administrative responsibilities. Had the Scarborough hospital known about the inappropriately viewed records the first time they had been accessed, they could have investigated earlier and protected the privacy of thousands of new mothers.

Every person seeks a hospital’s care has the right to privacy and the protection of their medical information. However, due to the sheer volume of patient records accessed each day, it is impossible for compliance officers to efficiently detect breaches without new and practical tools. Current rule-based analytical systems often overburden the officers with alerts, and are only a minor improvement from manual detection methods.

We are in the midst of a paradigm shift with hospitals taking a more proactive and layered approach to health data security. New technology that uses machine learning and big data science to review each access to medical records will replace traditional compliance technology and streamline threat detection and resolution cycles from months to a matter of minutes. Making identifying a privacy breach or violation as simple and fast as the action that may have caused it in the first place.  Understanding how to select and implement these next-generation tools will be a new and important challenge for the compliance officers of the future, but one that they can no longer afford to delay.

Protenus is a health data security platform that protects patient data in electronic medical records for some of the nation’s top-ranked hospitals. Using data science and machine learning, Protenus technology uniquely understands the clinical behavior and context of each user that is accessing patient data to determine the appropriateness of each action, elevating only true threats to patient privacy and health data security.