Gastroenterology Consultants Notifies Patients About January 2021 Ransomware Attack

On January 10, 2021, Gastroenterology Consultants, PA suffered a ransomware attack that resulted in the encryption of sensitive data.  Yesterday, notifications were sent to patients potentially affected by the attack to inform them that their protected health information may have been accessed or compromised in the attack.

Gastroenterology Consultants, the largest partnership GI practice in Houston, TX, launched an investigation into the attack and took steps to remove the attackers from its network and restore affected data. A substitute breach notice was uploaded to the company website on March 19, 2021 advising patients about the attack. No evidence was found to indicate any patient data were accessed by the attacker or exfiltrated in the attack.

Attacks such as this typically warrant breach notification letters, as while evidence of data theft may not be found, it is usually not possible to rule out unauthorized access to PHI with a high degree of certainty. In this case, Rather than identify the individual patients affected by the attack, the decision was taken to notify all patients whose PHI was potentially compromised. The breach report submitted to the Maine Attorney General indicates 162,163 breach notifications have been sent.

“After undertaking an extensive data mining process to determine specifically whether any patient or employee had any sensitive Personal Information or Personal Health Information exposed, we, unfortunately, learned that the time and effort to manually review thousands of documents was not cost-effective,” explained Gastroenterology Consultants in its breach notification. “Therefore, although there is no evidence of any unauthorized use of patient or employee data, we have determined it best to issue mail notifications to all employees and patients detailing the specific type of information potentially exposed.”

The files potentially compromised had been prepared by employees to facilitate patient processing. The documents contained some personal health information, with fewer than 50 having their Social Security numbers compromised. Those individuals have been offered free credit monitoring services, as have employees whose sensitive data were potentially accessed.

Author: Steve Alder has many years of experience as a journalist, and comes from a background in market research. He is a specialist on legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA. Steve holds a B.Sc. from the University of Liverpool.