Protecting healthcare data from cyber attacks would be easy if organizations only had to worry about a few types of attacks, or if attempted breaches were rare.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Cyber attacks that target healthcare data and systems occur at a dizzying rate and come in many forms. The sheer volume of sensitive and diverse data–including Protected Health Information (PHI)–that healthcare organizations manage make it even more challenging to defend healthcare data and systems against cyber attack risks.

Establishing a plan to mitigate the risk of healthcare cyber attacks, and responding effectively when they occur, is critical for any organization that operates in the healthcare sector. This article offers guidance on how to manage cyber attack risks in healthcare by detailing common types of cyber risks and attacks, then explaining best practices for protecting systems and data.

Why the healthcare sector is at risk for cyber attacks

Cyber attacks occur in every industry and sector. However, healthcare organizations are at special risk, largely due to the fact that the information they produce and manage is a particularly alluring target for attackers.

Patient information often includes data, like treatment history information, that is unchangeable and can’t be erased or updated following a breach, meaning it holds special value. In fact, a single breach of a hospital or doctor office’s network could expose hundreds of thousands of individual records. This makes healthcare cyber attacks an especially lucrative activity for hackers. This helps explain why attacks that target the healthcare industry reached an all-time high in 2021 and have continued to climb since.

Another reason why the healthcare sector is targeted is because of the high propensity to pay a ransom. There is a zero sum choice between paying a ransom to a cyberattacker or risking patient lives by not being able to deliver healthcare services. In 2021, 61% of respondents to a Sophos healthcare study reported that they paid ransoms; this is a higher rate than any other sector. Additionally, with the continued focus on the pandemic and patient care, users can also be distracted, leaving systems unprotected or unknowingly clicking on a phishing email. This can make healthcare organizations more vulnerable and easier to  target.

On top of this, PHI and other information stored by healthcare organizations is subject to special data privacy regulations, defined by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and other regulatory laws. As a result, the impact of a breach in this industry can be especially grave. Other types of businesses may suffer financial harm or disruptions to their operations due to attacks, but they typically don’t face the steep consequences that apply in the case of healthcare cyber attacks.

The cost of cyber attacks

Due to regulatory consequences as well as a variety of other factors, the cost of a breach that impacts a healthcare business can be especially steep.

Fines assessed by the federal government for HIPAA violations amount to millions of dollars per year. Disruptions to hospital services can bring revenue to a halt, leading to losses of hundreds of thousands of dollars per day. Healthcare organizations that fail to deliver promised patient services, or can’t uphold standard safety and security procedures due to cyber attacks may also face lawsuits, further increasing the cost of a breach. And the harm caused by an attack to a hospital’s reputation may cause patients to seek care elsewhere, leading to a loss of future revenue.

When you add up these various costs, it’s easy to understand why the total financial fallout of cyber attacks is 9.44 million dollars, according to the latest data from IBM. And that’s just the average cost. In some cases, the cost of individual cyber incidents involving healthcare organizations in recent years have exceeded 100 million dollars.

Fortunately, as healthcare providers know better than anyone else, an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure. By investing in cyber attack prevention, it’s possible to avoid the steep financial fallout of cyber attacks that target the healthcare industry.

To read a complete maturity guide on implementing connected device security for healthcare, please download the report here.

Preventing cyber risks

Attack prevention starts with understanding the types of systems that are at risk, as well as the specific types of attacks that may affect them.

In the context of healthcare, connected devices tend to be an especially easy target. Connected devices include Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) such as infusion pumps and patient monitors for patient care, or Internet of Things (IoT) such as HVAC systems and elevator control systems for hospital operations. Healthcare organizations typically manage tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of devices like these that can increase the attack surface. These devices cannot be protected by conventional endpoint security tools like antivirus or endpoint security software. This means that they often represent low-hanging fruit for attackers looking to breach a hospital’s network.

Even if the devices themselves don’t contain sensitive data, they may connect to other devices or systems that do. That means attackers can use them as a “beachhead” where they gain initial access to internal resources, then execute other exploits.

Exacerbating the cyber risks that connected devices bring is the fact that many medical devices have long operational life cycles, and therefore run on outdated software which means that security updates are no longer available. Due to FDA regulations, it may also not be possible to apply updates to some medical devices; some medical device manufacturers also do not always offer software updates to address vulnerabilities.  When devices run on outdated software, threat actors can easily exploit any vulnerabilities that are present.

Securing these connected devices, then, is crucial for healthcare organizations. The first step is to discover and classify what devices are actually connected to the network. This includes visibility into what the device is, what other devices or systems it is communicating with, and where it is connected. This granular visibility is critical to identify devices with risks and vulnerabilities. By baselining what is normal behavior for devices, organizations can quickly pinpoint anomalies that may be an early indication of an attack in progress. Finally, segmentation can mitigate risks for devices that are mission-critical, or those that are running outdated operating systems that cannot be patched.

Types of cyber threats

There are many types of specific cyber threats for healthcare organizations to manage. Each attack involves different techniques and different types of risks; therefore,each type requires different defense methodologies.


Ransomware is a type of threat that occurs when attackers plant malware, or malicious software, inside a company’s network. The malware encrypts important data, and attackers demand ransom in exchange for decrypting it.

Unless victims have access to a backup of their data, they are forced to choose between paying the ransom or suffering permanent data loss. Either way, the affected organization is likely to suffer a delay in operations: either while waiting for data to be decrypted or  developing workarounds to restore operations in the absence of the lost data.

If ransomware attackers gain access to sensitive data like PHI, the incident could be considered a breach of healthcare regulations. Laws like HIPAA require public disclosure of these types of breaches. They may also lead to fines, especially if regulators determine that the breach occurred because the business failed to adhere to cybersecurity best practices.

Antivirus tools that can detect and block malware help to prevent ransomware attacks. Other best practices include monitoring the use of privileged protocols such as RDP and Telnet, and segmenting the network to prevent lateral movement. Creating regular data backups ensures that organizations can recover ransomed data quickly without paying the attackers.

When a ransomware attack occurs, the connected device security best practices described earlier, such as gaining complete asset inventory is critical to progress from “detect” to “response”.  For example, the ability to identify the device being compromised, where it is connected (physical and network location), and whether security policies or compensating controls can be applied is crucial for security and operations teams responding to the ransomware attack.

Data breaches

A data breach is any type of incident in which sensitive information is exposed to unauthorized parties. Like ransomware attacks, data breaches can lead to regulatory fines. They can also disrupt organization operations, cause a loss of revenue, and ultimately harm the company’s reputation. This is an especially serious risk in the healthcare industry, where establishing patient trust is a paramount priority for organizations.

To prevent data breaches, organizations must securely store data. In addition to encrypting sensitive information, organizations should enforce strict access controls that grant data access rights only to the specific parties or individuals who need it. For example, one doctor should not be able to view information for patients receiving care from a different doctor.

Phishing, social engineering and Business Email Compromise

Phishing is the use of social engineering techniques to trick an organization’s employees into handing over sensitive information.

There are multiple types of phishing attacks. The most common type utilizes email to target employees with messages requesting passwords or access keys. In other cases, attackers might target executives or managers in what are known as spear phishing attacks. Social media, SMS messages, and even videoconferencing can also be used to carry out phishing.

If attackers successfully gain access to sensitive credentials via phishing attacks, they can execute more sophisticated attacks  like a Business Email Compromise (BEC). In a BEC, hackers use a company’s email system to launch further attacks against the organization, its patients, or its partners. This is done through impersonating insiders at the company using their official email accounts. For example, attackers could use a doctor’s email account to ask the doctor’s patients to send them financial information. Since patients are likely to place special trust in their doctor, an attack like this has a higher chance of success than an ordinary phishing or social engineering attack.

Protecting against phishing threats starts with educating employees to identify and report phishing attacks to security teams, rather than responding to malicious messages. Software that automatically scans email and other systems for evidence of phishing can also help to mitigate this type of threat.

Insider threats

An insider threat is any type of risk to data or systems that is caused by insiders, like employees of the organization.

Some insider threats involve malicious actors, such as disgruntled employees who exfiltrate sensitive data to harm the organization. But insider threats can also result from complacency: employees don’t  actively follow security best practices. Sometimes, insider threats happen when well-intentioned employees make mistakes, such as forgetting to encrypt a sensitive file.

Insider threat mitigation requires the implementation of security controls that limit access rights to the minimum privileges necessary to do their  job. Training employees to be vigilant against malicious or complacent insider threats is also a best practice.

DDoS attacks

In a Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attack, attackers flood a network, service, or server with illegitimate traffic or requests in order to make the system unusable for legitimate users. Although DDoS attacks don’t typically lead to data exposure or loss, they do disrupt operations, which causes lost revenue and harms the organization’s reputation.

Since a DDoS attack could be launched from any device, securing connected network assets is critical for preventing DDoS attacks. Deploying special services that can detect and block DDoS attacks quickly can help mitigate this risk.

Mitigate Your Cyber Risks

Cyber attacks that target the healthcare industry come in many forms, and they can have particularly grave consequences given the volume and sensitivity of healthcare data. The fact that healthcare organizations constitute particularly lucrative targets for hackers only exacerbates the cybersecurity challenges that this industry faces.

To protect against these threats, it’s critical for healthcare organizations to invest in processes and tools that can protect all of their assets–including not just traditional IT resources like servers, but also connect devices–from all categories of cyber threat.

Ordr’s platform for discovering and securing devices is designed to do just that. By automatically identifying all devices connected to your network and informing you of potential security risks, Ordr helps you stay a step ahead of attackers and provides comprehensive visibility into threats no matter where they lurk on your network. Ordr can also automate responses, such as dynamically generating policies to block ports, terminate sessions or segment devices to mitigate risks. In an industry where small-scale breaches can quickly turn into multi-million dollar attacks, the value of protecting your network with Ordr can’t be understated.

To read a complete maturity guide on implementing connected device security for healthcare, please download the report here.

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