Healthcare Cyberattacks at Two Hospitals Prompt Tough Decisions as Their Clinical Laboratories Are Forced to Switch to Paper Documentation
Recent intrusions into the hospitals’ IT systems resulted in blocked medical records including medical laboratory data
Healthcare cyberattacks continue to be a threat that bring potentially costly business consequences for clinical laboratories. Just in the past month, two hospital systems had their health information technology (HIT) systems disrupted due to security incidents. In response, the hospitals’ medical laboratories were forced to switch from digital to paper documentation and, in at least one case, the organization reportedly had difficulty accessing electronic laboratory test results.
At Tallahassee Memorial, an “IT security issue” on Feb. 2 resulted in the organization shutting down its IT systems for 13 days, including at its clinical laboratory. The hospital’s computer network went back online on Feb. 15, according to a news release.
At Atlantic General Hospital, according to an AGH news release, IT personnel discovered a ransomware attack on Jan. 29 that affected the hospital’s central computer system. As a result, the walk-in outpatient laboratory was closed until Feb. 14.
These recent cyberattacks underscore the importance for clinical laboratory leaders to have plans and procedures already in place prior to a disruption in access to critical patient data.
Healthcare cyberattacks can be a “complete blindside for a lot of organizations that think they have protections in place because they bought a product or they developed a policy,” said Ben Denkers (above), Chief Innovation Officer at CynergisTek, an Austin, Texas-based cybersecurity company, in an exclusive interview with The Dark Report. Since clinical laboratory test results make up about 80% of a patient’s medical records, disruption of a hospital’s IT network can be life threatening. (Photo copyright: The Dark Report.)
Laboratory Staff Unable to View Digital Diagnostic Results at Tallahassee Memorial
Though the exact nature of the incident at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare has not been divulged, hospital officials did report the incident to law enforcement, which suggests a cyberattack had occurred.
Electronic laboratory test results were among the casualties of the IT difficulties at TMH. “Staff have been unable to access digital patient records and lab results because of the shutdown,” a source told CNN.
Attempts by Dark Daily to reach a medical laboratory manager for comment at TMH were unsuccessful. However, in a news release posted online shortly after the cyberattack, the health system advised staff members on dealing with the IT outages.
“Patients and families may notice the switch to paper documentation during registration, admission, or during their care, as our providers will be using paper forms, prescription pads, handwritten notes, or other similar paper methods where they may usually use an electronic process,” the news release stated. “We apologize for any delays this may create. We practice for situations like this, and we are prepared to provide safe, high-quality care to our patients during computer system downtimes.”
Atlantic General Hospital Reports Ransomware Incident to the FBI
At Atlantic General Hospital, the outpatient walk-in laboratory and outpatient imaging department both temporarily closed because of the ransomware attack.
Staff members throughout the hospital were “forced to manually check patients in and out of appointments and record all other information by hand instead of online,” Ocean City Today reported.
The hospital immediately informed the FBI of the ransomware incident and continues to work with an incident response team to determine whether criminals accessed any sensitive data. It was not clear whether the organization ultimately paid a ransom to unlock its systems.
The hospital’s medical laboratory director did not respond to an email from Dark Daily seeking further comment.
Healthcare Cyberattacks Attempt to Gain Access to Data
As we covered in “Ransomware Strikes Hospitals, Clinical Laboratories, and Medical Clinics without Warning and Is Now a Major Threat to all Healthcare Organizations,” healthcare organizations have increasingly been a target of cybercriminals and hackers who are after valuable patient data. For example, the healthcare and public health sector accounted for 25% of ransomware complaints as of October 2022, according to data from the FBI, as reported by the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
Therefore, it is critical that clinical laboratory and hospital staff work with their IT counterparts to verify that technology and processes are in place to protect access to patient data.
In “Labs Must Audit Their Cybersecurity Measures,” Ben Denkers, who at that time was Chief Innovation Officer at CynergisTek, a cybersecurity firm based in Austin, Texas, told The Dark Report, “Testing, validating, and auditing whether measures are working as designed is a change of mentality for a lot of organizations.” (If you don’t subscribe to The Dark Report, try our free trial.)
An IT network attack is an attempt by a cybercriminal to gain unauthorized access to devices that contain and exchange data within an organization. Although this information may be on individual devices or on servers, network attacks are often only possible after a hacker enters a system through an endpoint, such as an individual’s email inbox.
“It’s important to understand that while the network server itself might have ultimately been the target, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was compromised first,” Denkers told The Dark Report. “Phishing is a perfect example of a way an attacker could first gain access to a workstation, and then from there move laterally to a server.”
The final cost of a healthcare cyberattack often exceeds the ransom. Media coverage can lead to an organization’s diminished reputation within the community, and if protected health information (PHI) is accessed by the criminals, a hospital or health system may need to pay for identity theft monitoring for affected patients.
There also are regulatory repercussions that can be costly depending on the circumstances surrounding a cyberattack. For example, on Feb. 2, the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights announced a settlement with Banner Health Affiliated Covered Entities (Banner Health), a nonprofit health system headquartered in Phoenix, to resolve a data breach resulting from a hacking incident in 2016. That incident disclosed PHI for 2.81 million patients.
As part of the settlement, Banner Health paid a $1.25 million penalty and will carry out a corrective action plan to protect PHI in the future and resolve any alleged HIPAA violations, according to the HHS Office for Civil Rights.
This hefty penalty is a reminder to pathologists and clinical laboratory managers that—when it comes to cyberattacks—the classic adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is appropriate advice.