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The healthcare industry is making it far too easy for hackers

It’s becoming harder and harder for me to read about the glaring security holes, the bafflingly risky behaviors and the all-around worst practices of the healthcare industry and still maintain some semblance of composure and mental health. It feels as if each new study or research paper on healthcare security is pushing me closer to the point where I’ll be more terrified of seeing doctors using an outdated Windows XP client than watching them approach me with a scalpel or six-inch hypodermic needle. Or both.

Case in point: a study from researchers at Dartmouth College, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California has garnered media attention recently, as it shows the lengths doctors, nurses and clinicians will go to bypass security controls and authentication measures, which many view as impediments to their jobs. “Workarounds to computer access in healthcare are sufficiently common that they often go unnoticed,” the study reads. “Clinicians focus on patient care, not cybersecurity.”

The title of the paper – “Workarounds to Computer Access in Healthcare Organizations: You Want My Password or a Dead Patient?” – offers a big hint about the mentality of medical professionals when it comes to the topic of information security. The study, in which researchers interviewed and observed hundreds of medical workers, at different hospitals and medical centers, showed how doctors, nurses and other medical professionals are so desperate to avoid cumbersome login and authentication processes that they will resort to almost absurd practices to get around them.

But in case the title and summary aren’t enough, here are some points from the study:

  • “Clinicians share passwords with others so that they can read the same patients’ charts even though they might have access in common. A misbehaving hospital technician used a physician’s PIN code to create fake reports for patients.”
  • The study documented “physicians ordering medications for the wrong patient because a computer was left on and the doctors didn’t realize it was open for a different patient.”
  • “Nurses would circumvent the need to log out of COWs [computers on wheels] by placing “sweaters or large signs with their names on them” or hiding them or simply lowering laptop screens.”
  • The study cited a previous report about how “clever clinicians at one hospital defeated proximity sensor-based timeouts by putting Styrofoam cups over the detectors, and how (at another hospital) the most junior person on a medical team is expected to keep pressing the space bar on everyone’s keyboard to prevent timeouts.”
  • “One vendor even distributed stickers touting ‘to write your username and password and post on your computer monitor.’ A newspaper found a discarded computer from a practice contained a Word document of the employees’ passwords — conveniently linked from a desktop icon.”

Medical professionals, however, don’t bear the full blame for these terrible healthcare security practices. The study points out how some of the inadequate IT systems used in hospitals can promote this kind of delinquency. For example, the paper cites an example of a physician who uses the clinic’s dictation system – which has a five-minute session timeout and requires users to re-authenticate (which takes approximately one minute) to log back in; the physician told the researchers he spent nearly an hour-and-a-half logging in one day.

Another example involved a large city hospital, which required a digital thumbprint to authenticate each death certificate. But only one of the doctors on staff had thumbs that could be read by the digital reader. “Consequently, only that one doctor signs all of the death certificates, no matter whose patient the deceased was,” the report stated.

Still, however dysfunctional the technology and legacy systems at hospitals are, these access and authentication workarounds are just more examples of how easy the healthcare industry makes it for attackers to breach their networks. Attacks on hospitals and healthcare organizations are on the rise, and we’ve seen repeated examples of how vulnerable hospitals are to such attacks. It’s time the healthcare industry to address these counterproductive behaviors and woeful technology before the medical records and personally identifiable information of every U.S. citizen becomes public domain — if they aren’t already.