The NHS is a constant target for cyberattacks, but smaller practices and organisations across the UK are just as vulnerable. While headlines often focus on large hospital breaches, the patient data you hold in your practice – personal identifiable information, NHS numbers, medical records – is a goldmine for identity theft and fuelling further cyber-crime. Here’s what you need to know about essential cybersecurity practices which can help you protect your organisation and keep your patient data secure. 

The value of patient data 

Patient data is a valuable commodity on the black market. It is a treasure trove of personal information like names, addresses, birth dates, NHS numbers, and most importantly, medical history. This information can be used for a variety of criminal activities: 

  • The personal information healthcare organisations hold can be used to fraudulently open bank accounts, credit cards, and take out loans in the victim’s name. 
  • Patient data can be used to submit fake medical claims to insurance providers. 
  • Criminals can compile patient data with data stolen from other sources to create complete profiles for sale on the dark web. 

Why you’re a target 

While a large hospital might hold a wider variety of data, small providers still hold valuable patient information. Cyber criminals exploit weaknesses, and smaller practices and providers often lack the resources to invest in robust defences. The perceived weaknesses in a smaller provider make them more attractive to less skilled hackers too, which makes them vulnerable to a larger number of attackers, who may feel there will be less scrutiny and a reduced risk of being caught. 

Criminals might also believe that smaller practices are more likely to pay a ransom quickly to get their systems back online and minimise disruption to patient care, compared to a larger hospital that may be able to afford a longer downtime. 

Balancing security and accessibility 

Ensuring strong security measures can seem overwhelming, but implementing multiple layers of security can help achieve a balance between safety and convenience. Implement strong password policies, multi-factor authentication (MFA), and user access controls that limit access to sensitive data based on job role.  

Overly complicated security controls can reduce productivity and even weaken your security posture. Imagine a GP unable to access a patient’s record due to excessively complex requirements. Employees could become frustrated by overly complicated security measures and resort to workarounds that bypass security protocols all together, such as sharing passwords or using unauthorised devices. 

The allure of personal devices 

The convenience of personal devices can be a security nightmare. Unsecured laptops and smart phones used to access patient data create entry points for malware. Personal devices might not have the same security measures as work issued devices, making them more vulnerable. Healthcare providers have a legal obligation to protect patient data, and the use of personal devices can make it difficult to comply with data privacy regulations as the practice may not have full control over how the data is stored and accessed. 

Beyond the security risks, using personal devices for work purposes can blur the lines between work and personal life for employees. Constant access to work emails and data can have a negative impact on employee well-being and lead to issues like burnout. 

The true cost of ransomware 

Ransomware is a type of malicious software that encrypts your data and asks for a ransom payment in exchange for the key to unlock it. The financial consequences can be severe, but the real risk lies in the disruption of patient care. If critical medical information is not accessible, it can lead to delays in treatment and potentially impact patient outcomes. 

The impact of ransomware can extend beyond the immediate patient base of your practice. Loss of trust in health and social care providers can discourage patients from seeking preventive care, potentially leading to a rise in care costs down the line. 

Are you ready for a cyber-attack? 

Ensuring your organisation is prepared for a cyber-attack is crucial. It is essential to regularly assess vulnerabilities, implement a backup and recovery plan, educate staff on cyber threats like phishing scams through security awareness training, and have a documented Incident Response Plan.  

Being proactive by implementing measures such as these can safeguard your business from potential threats and minimise the impact of any security incidents. 

Who is responsible for Information Security? 

To effectively combat cyber threats, there must be a shared responsibility approach to information security. While leadership sets the tone and IT implements the technical measures, everyone plays a role in preventing breaches and securing patient data. By cultivating a culture of security awareness and vigilance, everyone can contribute to a safer environment.