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9/19/2010
02:52 PM
George V. Hulme
George V. Hulme
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Steady Bleed: State of HealthCare Data Breaches

Study reveals that, for many healthcare providers, patient data breaches continue - month after month - at an alarming rate.

Study reveals that, for many healthcare providers, patient data breaches continue - month after month - at an alarming rate.Readers of this blog know that I like to hammer the message about how poorly health care providers, broadly, have approached how they secure patient information. To date, according to a quick search of the open Security Foundation's DatalossDB, millions of medical records have already been compromised.

Frankly, it wasn't too difficult to see the current sorry state of patient data security coming. In the late 1990s, we saw applications that were running on local area networks that were rushed to the Web. To this day, web application security is a big problem with no easy solution. Consider how many web sites today are serving malware - more than one million -- according to the latest report from Dasient.

A few years later we saw a mad rush into eCommerce and online payments, and once again we saw a tremendous amount of credit card breaches soon follow.

Consider these stats from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, which shows that 153 health care organizations have reported data breaches involving 500 or more patients since that organization started tracking data last year.

Why we collectively surge forward with new technological initiatives - without first considering whether or not we have the proper security and privacy safeguards in place - I'm not sure. Especially now, following so many security failures during the past 11 years.

Now, if the data that has come to light from HHS isn't enough to convince you that health care companies aren't doing what they need to do to protect patient data, consider some of the numbers from a new study by the privacy breach detection firm FairWarning.

The company claims that the four clients below are typical of the other 300 clients the company says it currently services:

• 200-bed hospital with a few small clinics, Rurally based: 24 confirmed incidents per month.

• U.S. based physician practice with 20 clinics metro and rurally dispersed: 29 confirmed incidents per month.

• UK based teaching hospital in major metropolitan area as well as rurally based facilities: 130 confirmed incidents per month

• Top 50 U.S. Health System with multiple affiliated hospitals and clinics - Based in a major metropolitan area: 125 confirmed incidents per month.

Particularly concerning is that the report noted multiple reports of staff from rural and metropolitan providers using the EHR system to regularly steal the identities of dead people to conduct identity theft. Seems to me if they're willing to steal the credentials and identity of dead people, it's not too far a leap to think they'd steal the identities and medical information of other patients if they could sell or otherwise profit from that information.

The report also lists a number of privacy breach anecdotes the company says it has culled from the companies it monitors:

• Employee of a premier specialty hospital owned an assisted living facility as a side business and was mining patients from their EHR account to feed his own business

• Major physician practice in which a valued senior physician hired several low-paid junior physicians to enter notes in the senior physician‟s name resulting in billing fraud

• Many locations and incidents involving sports star snooping (football, baseball, soccer, basketball) particularly during media coverage immediately before or after major games, most common in the metropolitan area where the sports team is based

• Major teaching hospital involved in a homicide investigation in which law enforcement requested audit trail of suspected co-conspirators who were employees of health system and examining soon to be deceased victim through electronic health record system

• Multiple reports from metropolitan and rural based care providers detecting staff using EHR access to systematically steal the identities of deceased patients to commit financial identity theft

• Staff members of metropolitan health system using pharmacy dispensing system to self-prescribe oxycodone

• Thousands of occurrences of family member snooping, self examination, employee as patient, and general VIP snooping. Career gain, child custody, blackmail, lawsuits as well as general curiosity are reported as motivations during the remediation process

It's clear hospitals and others and others in the health industry that handle electronic patient records need to do more - much more - to protect the data they're being entrusted to collect and manage.

For my security and technology observations throughout the day, consider following me on Twitter.

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