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Insider Threats to Patient Privacy

Unveiling the Unseen: Insider Threats to Patient Privacy

Protecting patient information is more than a legal obligation - it's a foundational aspect of trust between providers and those in their care. But what happens when the threat to privacy comes from within?

For CIOs, CISOs, and privacy and compliance officers, the ubiquity of insider threats necessitates vigilance beyond external breaches. Understanding the spectrum of these threats, from inadvertent mishaps to willful data exfiltration by employees, is essential in safeguarding sensitive patient data.

The Growing Concern of Hospital Insider Threats

The rise of digital health records has been a game-changer for the medical profession, streamlining access to information and improving patient care. However, with this transformation comes increased vulnerabilities. Insiders—employees (in-house and remote), contractors, or associates—often have legitimate access but may misuse it, whether unintentionally or maliciously.

We are constantly focused on rising threats both inside and outside of the hospital," said Nate Lesser CISO of Children's National Hospital during a recent healthsystemCIO webinar Managing Insider Threats in an Era of Remote Workers & Increased Turnover.

Insider threats can take many forms in a healthcare context:

  • An administrative employee viewing patient records out of curiosity or for personal gain
  • A nurse or a doctor accidentally sharing sensitive information through unsecured means
  • IT staff with privileged access intentionally breaching patient privacy

In 2021, HHS reported to Congress that while external threats like hacking impacted the highest volume of patients, health systems have been inundated with investigations of unauthorized access that stem from their own insiders, comprising 93% of those reported. Under HIPAA rules, each of these scenarios can lead to hefty fines and, more importantly, irreversible damage to reputation and patient trust.

Learn why HIPAA fines increased in 2023.

In the healthsystemCIO webinar, "Managing Insider Threats in an Era of Remote Workers & Increased Turnover", healthcare leaders Nate Lesser (CISO, Children’s National Hospital), Paul Curylo (CISO, Inova Health System) and Nick Culbertson (Co-Founder & CEO, Protenus) discussed three pillars of success that support the vigilance needed in patient privacy: Education, Technology and Governance.

Fostering a Culture of Awareness and Responsibility

Addressing the insider threat begins with fostering a culture of privacy awareness and responsibility. Protecting patient privacy is not just an IT concern. It's a wider organizational behavior issue that requires a culture of security and privacy.

Training and education play pivotal roles. By informing all healthcare personnel of HIPAA compliance and the dire consequences of breaches, healthcare facilities can mitigate the risks posed by human error and prevent negligence.

Leveraging Technology for Enhanced Healthcare Data Security

Technology must act as the first line of defense in the fight against insider threats. Implementing sophisticated monitoring tools that flag unusual access patterns or data movements can help catch potential threats early.

The greater the visibility, the more likely cybersecurity teams are to catch minor infractions and prevent them from becoming full-on threats, according to Nick Culbertson, CEO and Co-Founder at Protenus. “We know that the worst incidents don’t just come out of nowhere. They build up over time.” Being proactive not only can prevent damage, it can also promote safe behaviors by helping to educate users on what they can and cannot do. “Being able to educate and say, ‘this is against our policy’ has had such an impact on reducing the overall risk landscape,” he said.

Developing a Response Strategy for When Breaches Occur

Despite best efforts, breaches do happen. Having a clear and efficient response strategy to manage and mitigate the damage is critical. This strategy should involve:

  • Identifying the breach rapidly and isolating affected systems
  • Following regulatory obligations, including reporting to stakeholders and authorities
  • Conducting a thorough investigation to prevent future incidents

Insider Threats: The Silent Concern in the Healthcare Sector

Insider threats in healthcare go beyond cyber-attacks: they speak to the very essence of patient-practitioner relationships. Staying vigilant and proactive is non-negotiable for any healthcare entity striving to protect the privacy of its patients. As compliance officers know well, "Securing patient data in the digital age is an ongoing process that demands continual reassessment and realignment of security protocols."

By crowd-sourcing defense mechanisms from both human and technological solutions, we can create robust barriers to protect the most valuable asset in healthcare — patient trust.


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