Protecting patients from ransomware attacks

Dell Technologies
By AJ Missaghi Chief Technology Officer – Healthcare & Life Sciences (APJ), Dell Technologies
Thursday, 31 March, 2022


The moves made by Australian healthcare leaders to digitally transform health services now will directly impact the long-term wellbeing of citizens and protect the future economy.

However, to realise the potential of a digitalised healthcare sector and navigate the data era, leaders must prepare for innovative technologies and confront the rise in cyber and ransomware attacks head-on.

In the past two years, the healthcare system has been at the heart of societal and economic recovery. Its resiliency and innovation while facing the ongoing pandemic and other everyday medical challenges have been immense; the rapid shift to telehealth services helped reduce community transmission and protect patients and healthcare workers while keeping beds free for COVID-19 patients. Now, as governments collaborate with healthcare leaders and tech experts to realise the full potential of digitally driven service solutions, the progress made in recent times must be protected and enhanced.

Healthcare vulnerabilities

A cyberattack was reported every 8 minutes in Australia over the 2020–2021 financial year, with an 84 per cent increase in reports relating to the health sector in 2020 from 2019. The financial cost is staggering, but the human cost is incalculable. Already straining under a backlog of pandemic patient appointments, health systems are relying on digital transformations to turbocharge long-term resiliency. But cyberattacks can disrupt operations at large hospitals resulting in a lack of access to patient data and delays and cancellations of time-sensitive procedures.

The Australian Government’s Ransomware Action Plan reports that during the height of the pandemic in 2020, ransomware campaigns targeted Australia’s aged care and healthcare sectors. The ‘Maze’ ransomware encrypted valuable information, such as sensitive personal and medical information, so it could no longer be used until a ransom was paid. Reckless attacks such as these put patients’ lives at risk.

Preventative cyber technology is constantly evolving with innovations to protect data and keep pace with the bad actors; however, the Australian health sector will continue to be a vulnerable target because of its access to sensitive data and increased reliance on internet-enabled services. And alarmingly, according to a 2021 survey by Dell Technologies, 74% of health industry decision-makers say they struggle to find suitable data protection for their AI and machine learning solutions. A collaborative public and private sector approach is now needed to maximise cyber security and resilience.

Ransomware is everyone’s problem and could hinder healthcare progress if not dealt with decisively. As the Australian government mounts more robust defences against cyberattacks, national partnerships with the brightest cyber experts, CIOs, and public health leaders are necessary to ensure Australia is cyber secure. Cyber is at the core of digital healthcare infrastructure and the basis for future progress, making it essential for combatting today’s healthcare challenges.

Protecting health data

Health data is the lifeblood of progress in solving healthcare problems. But accelerated digital transformations have created increasing complexities — and data protection must evolve to meet new demands.

After a tumultuous couple of years, healthcare waiting lists have grown out-of-hand, placing pressure on already overwhelmed facilities and staff. Telehealth services, supported by always-on digital platforms, initially boosted accessibility to services and continue to streamline efficiencies. The Australian government has recently committed an additional $24 million to support telehealth changes to give GPs and specialists additional flexibility to treat their patients safely as Omicron case numbers grow.

Meanwhile, the datasphere has grown increasingly complex. Simplified, agile as-a-service data management across the hybrid and multi-cloud is now essential for boosting operational efficiencies. Health records and mobile devices have streamlined wait times and minimised patients’ time spent in hospitals, as IoT and Edge computing have powered patient monitoring. Behind the frontlines, AI technologies have led the charge on healthcare research — enabled by High Performance Computing. In December 2021, the Australian Alliance for Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare launched a roadmap with proposed strategies to cover critical issues in the roll-out of an AI-enabled Australian healthcare system, with the goal being a fully funded national plan by 2025.

Given these advancements, it isn’t surprising that the health sector is a tempting target for cybercriminals. Retaining trust in the digital innovations that underpin Australia’s future economy and social wellbeing is critical to sustaining progress, which is why it’s more important than ever that our most sensitive data, health data, is rigorously protected.

As healthcare leaders look to reinforce the cyber resiliency of their organisations, focusing on their most critical data is key — from records with accompanying images to object data from diagnostic systems and health surveys. Placing this critical data in a vault will help ensure it is isolated, can’t be modified and can be quickly recovered in the event of an attack — enabling healthcare services to get up and running quickly again.

Better together

Protecting these unstructured datasets requires a ‘people, process, and best of breed technology solutions’ approach. While there is no antidote or 100% fail-proof approach, enlisting a cyber strategy that focuses on all three areas is vital. Cyber security is evolving quickly to keep pace with cybercriminals. That means cyber strategies should constantly evolve too, with stress tests and ongoing assessments to ensure they are fit for purpose. Planning and preparation are vital. So is the having the right technology and cybersecurity partners. This is not a journey that healthcare providers can travel alone — and there is no end in sight.

But the risks of not acting now far outweigh the short-term cost of investing in tighter cyber strategies. Healthcare progress is at stake. It is underpinned by technology innovations that require patient trust, continuity, and reliability. Take the potential for Digital Twin technology, which is transforming the sector and enabling healthcare institutions to meet pressing challenges — from personalising healthcare to combatting patient wait times. The powerful combination of the digital twin, IoT, AI, and data analytics will boost patient outcomes and hospital performance. But this must be supported by stringent cyber security to evolve with the trust of patients and healthcare providers — and remain operational in the event of a ransomware attack.

Ransomware is a national and global challenge; an open, multistakeholder approach across sectors will help organisations ramp up defences. The nature of healthcare makes it particularly vulnerable, and the stakes are high as it powers national resilience beyond the pandemic. Securing the viability of healthcare innovations with first-class cyber strategies will benefit everyone everywhere. As we look to a more equitable, sustainable future that puts citizens at the forefront of progress, healthcare cyber security is more than a hot topic — it’s a lifeline.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Monkey Business

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