Though many of these breaches aren't necessarily caused directly by unauthorized access or hacking of healthcare databases, some experts believe that the high numbers (PDF) are due to lax handling of how data is stored and accessed within these databases. This atmosphere, along with the extreme portability of healthcare data due to consumer devices and laptops and increasing numbers of malicious insiders seeking to profit from electronic medical records (EMRs) and other patient data, has formed a poisonous combination within the industry.
"Healthcare database technology is still older and a lot of it is proprietary and a lot of what's happened is through multiple levels of the application stack, they're ultimately presenting the information in these databases through EMRs, the actual EMR applications, through web interfaces and other application systems," says Deke George, CEO of NetSPI, a security consultancy with a heavy healthcare client base.
He says that one of the biggest issues healthcare organizations face in regards to database security is the issue of what happens to data once it gets outside of the database.
"Whether it's the actual cache or whatever type of database the system is using, the information tends to spread around," George says. "It's more than just a leak. There's a lot of data warehousing and there's a lot of information that may be in one database, but it gets spread around because it needs to be used for healthcare informatics in other uses."
The patterns behind many of this year's biggest healthcare breaches seem to corroborate George's worries. Some of the most frequent causes behind breaches in 2010 and in recent memory are lost and stolen laptops as well as back-up tapes, hard drives, and other portable media.
New York-based Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, for example, reported in late June that more than 130,000 of its patients' personal information was compromised after it overnighted a bundle full of CDs with unencrypted data to its billing processor via FedEx and the shipper lost them.
In order to prevent these kinds of glaring oversights, organizations need to find a better way to track data as it flows between the database and other systems, George says.
"The healthcare application market has gotten ahead of the technology to secure the information in the database," he says. "A holistic review of how organizations are securing the information contained within a database is usually not being done."
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