Outpatient Facilities Targeted by Cyber Actors More Frequently Than Hospitals

A new analysis of breach reports submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights has revealed outpatient facilities and specialty clinics have been targeted by cyber threat actors more frequently than hospital systems in the first 6 months of 2021.

Researchers at Critical Insight explained in their 2021 Healthcare Data Breach Report that cybercriminals have changed their targets within the healthcare ecosystem and are now focusing on outpatient facilities and business associates more often than hospitals and health insurers.

While large health systems are naturally attractive targets for cybercriminals, smaller healthcare organizations tend to have weaker security defenses and can be attacked more easily and are low hanging fruit for hackers. The potential profits from the attacks may be lower, but so too is the effort to gain access to their networks and sensitive data.

“It is no secret as to why hackers are showing interest. Electronic protected health information (ePHI) is worth more than a credit card number or social security number. Scammers can monetize it in a myriad of ways, from selling it on the dark web to filing fraudulent insurance claims,” explained the researchers in the report. “It does not help that many health organizations use devices that run on operating systems that are out-of-date, and many devices were not designed with cybersecurity in mind.”

The researchers confirmed healthcare data breaches are now occurring at almost twice the level of 2018, with data breaches attributed to hacking and IT incidents occurring at almost three times the level of the first half of 2018. In the first half of 2021, 70% of all healthcare data breaches of 500 or more records that were reported to the HHS’ Office for Civil Rights were hacking/IT incidents.

There has been a slight decline in the number of reported data breaches from the last 6 months of 2020, but that does not indicate cyberattacks are falling, as in the last half of 2020 the breach reports submitted to the HHS’ Office for Civil Rights included many breach notices submitted by organizations affected by the data breach at business associate Blackbaud. The number of reported breaches in the first half of 2021 is higher than the first 6 months of last year, and it looks like the trend for increasing numbers of data breaches being reported every year looks set to continue.

There has been a major increase in the number of cyberattacks on business associates of HIPAA covered entities, which now account for 43% of all reported healthcare data breaches. In the first 6 months of 2021, there were 141 data breaches reported by business associates of HIPAA-covered entities. By comparison, there were only 66 data breaches reported by business associates in the last 6 months of 2019. “As these and other third-party breaches continue to make the news, it demonstrates that attackers are paying more attention to this ecosystem of vendors as a vulnerable link in the cybersecurity chain,” explained the researchers.

Cybercriminals are unlikely to stop attaching healthcare organizations as the attacks are profitable. It is up to healthcare organizations and their business associates to improve their defenses against cyber actors. The Critical Insight researchers have made several recommendations, including assessing third party risk more accurately, regularly reviewing business associate agreements and ensuring they clearly define roles and responsibilities, implementing more comprehensive protections against ransomware and phishing attacks, strengthening access controls, and practicing basic security hygiene.

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.