Health Care Breaches Common, but Budgets Stay Mostly Flat: Survey

Almost 90 percent of hospitals and insurers have had a breach in the past two years, but budgets have risen for less than a third of health care organizations.

health care breach

While the theft of medical information from health care organizations has become commonplace and prompted some companies and hospitals to strengthen information-security practices, the industry overall remains behind in protecting patient data and budgets remain flat, according to a survey co-authored by the Ponemon Institute and ID Experts.

Based on multiple interviews with 91 health insurers and hospitals and 84 business associates, the survey found that 89 percent of health care organizations had a data breach in the past two years, with nearly half having more than five data breaches. While most of the breaches were small, encompassing less than 500 records, the average cost of a breach was $2.2 million over two years for health care providers and insurers and more than $1 million for business associates, according to the survey.

Despite the impact of the attacks, organizations are moving slowly to improve their security, Larry Ponemon, chairman of the Ponemon Institute, told eWEEK.

"There is a lack of funding, people, resources and expertise to manage data breaches," he said. "You would think that would have changed over time, but the problems persist."

The survey comes as health facilities and insurers suffer from significant compromises. In February, Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, for example, paid criminals $17,000, after ransomware encrypted some of the hospital's critical systems. The year before, another compromise, this time of health insurer Anthem, resulted in more than 80 million patient records stolen by attackers.

According to the latest survey, criminals hacking into health care networks caused half of all health care breaches, while malicious insiders caused another 13 percent. Business associates, which includes researchers and contractors, encountered slightly lower rates of malicious threats, with 41 percent of attacks caused by criminals and 9 percent by malicious insiders.

Unintentional actions by employees is another major cause of breaches, contributing to 36 percent of breaches for hospitals and health insurers and 55 percent of breaches at business associates.

The vast majority of companies pointed to negligent employee actions as the greatest enabler of breaches, with 69 percent of organizations identifying employees as a threat. Malicious actions by cyber-attackers came in a distant second, with only 45 percent of firms placing data thieves as a top concern. In third place, insecure mobile devices were a cause of concern for less than a third of respondents.

As a result of breaches, more than half of all companies have become better at vetting third-party partners, spent more on security technology and focused on employee training. However, the demand for security personnel has prevented nearly three-quarters of health care firms from hiring more skilled IT security personnel, the survey found. In addition, half of respondents did not see any change in budgets, while about 30 percent saw an increase over the past two years.

Health care organizations and their business associates tend to think the other is the less secure, according to Ponemon.

"There is a lot of finger-pointing, in terms of who is responsible," he said. "If you are a provider, you might point the finger at one of your business associates, but the business associates see the health care organizations as the source of the insecurity."

To a large extent, both seem to lack preparedness. Only 8 percent of health care organizations conduct vulnerability assessments quarterly, and 25 percent of business associates do so, the survey found.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...