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Don't Let HIPAA Audits, Ransomware Sink Your Practice

Don't Let HIPAA Audits, Ransomware Sink Your Practice

At the same time medical practices are faced with the increased likelihood of a HIPAA audit, hackers hover around waiting to steal patients’ personal data and/or hold it hostage through ransomware scams. These practices could easily sink in the perfect storm created by the confluence of these twin threats — especially if they are weighed down with tens of thousands of unsecured patients' records.

Though they may have ignored earlier warning signs, medical practices should not be surprised by the escalating risk of being saddled with a HIPAA compliance audit. During the 2011 Phase 1 round of audits, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found a significant percentage of medical entities had not performed a comprehensive security risk assessment.

On top of that, the Office of the Inspector General criticized OCR for not investigating a sufficient number of small data breaches or tracking all healthcare organizations found to be violating federal privacy laws —criticisms that could prompt stricter enforcement and steeper fines.

OCR is in the process of sending tens of thousands of emails to collect contact information on data security officers in medical facilities. While not all small practices may be subject to a review, the price for failing a HIPAA audit is steep. Earlier in 2016, OCR received two multimillion-dollar settlements from providers whose unencrypted laptops had been stolen. More than that, those practices could lose patients who are fearful about the potential theft of their personal information.

Concurrently, 2016 holds the dubious distinction of being named the "Year of Ransomware," by everyone from obscure cybersecurity bloggers to mainstream media commentators at the Los Angeles Times and CNN. The uptick in ransomware scams —estimated to have risen 35 percent in 2015 —is partly attributed to the fact that it's now easier for hackers to earn money by holding data hostage than by selling it on the black market.  

In February, computers at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles were shut down by hackers who held them hostage for ten days. This forced staffers to keep records with pen and paper until the hospital paid $17,000 in ransom via Bitcoin.

Hospitals and medical offices, offer a rich target for cybercriminals because of all their up-to-date personal information on patients. As HIPAA auditors noted, many medical entities do not often take rudimentary protective measures, like security risk assessments or staff training programs.

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