Life Science Compliance Update

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January 29, 2016

Another Transparency Threat – Health Education Exchanges and Medical Identity Theft

We have previously drawn attention to some of the downsides of transparency as it relates to medical information. Those downsides typically revolve around the Sunshine Act and Open Payments data. However, there is another major concern about a yet another aspect of medical information transparency. Electronic health records, which allow a primary care physician to quickly send information to other physicians, are starting to become more prominent, easily accessible, and dangerous.

Health information exchanges (HIEs) allow doctors to share information amongst each other and help healthcare agencies to track and respond to emerging health threats. Storing patient medical records in the cloud instead of on-site helps cut down on IT costs and storage costs, and allows medical providers to focus on their primary mission of providing healthcare to patients.

While there are some positives to health records being easily accessible by medical professionals, medical data being so easily accessible also presents a huge attack surface for cyber thieves. A recent Ponemon Institute survey reported that 2.3 million adult patients were victims of medical identity theft in 2014 and those victims spent an average of $13,500 trying to restore their credit, pay off fraudulent medical claims, and clean up their health records.

While the 2014 figures may astound you, The Washington Post reports that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates over 120 million Americans have had some of their protected health information (PHI) compromised in data breaches since 2009.

Individual companies and agencies have reported their own data breaches of PHI as well. Excellus BlueCross BlueShield suffered a data breach that affected 10.5 million people; Premera had a breach that affected up to 11 million people; and the Office of Program Management breach affected up to 21.5 million. It is estimated that in total, as much as half of the United States population has had PHI compromised.

These data breaches are the results of a new form of cyber attack. While there isn't just one purpose or motivation behind cyber attacks, there are several plausible ones. One reason may be because when the cyber attackers steal medical identities, they are able to monetize the financial information included within them. Dwayne Melancon, chief technology officer with Tripwire, says that the healthcare industry is ahead of the retail industry, but behind the financial industry, when it comes to protecting consumer data. The growth of the Dark Web has provided a ready and simple market for thieves who sell financial and other personal information, such as medical records. As such, it is possible that cyber attackers are turning to an easier approach when it comes to taking your financial information.

Further, while financial information can be monetized almost immediately, medical records can take a bit longer to exploit. If someone seeking medical treatment is using health information of another patient to receive free medical care, they need to be sure their provider doesn't already know who the real patient is and that the identity they stole matches them and their health issues close enough so that the fraud will not be immediately detected.

It isn't just the possibility of free medical care that could be motivating healthcare cyber attackers. Personal medical information can also be useful to those perpetrating phishing attacks. Parents of children who are terminally ill who receive calls from their doctors, or others purporting to be linked to the doctor, are not likely to be as cautious when told their child has been recommended for a promising clinical trial, and may give financial information over the phone.

Another use for stolen health data is extortion. UCLA Health dealt with a data breach in July 2014, after which Jeff Hill, channel manager at STEALTHbits Technologies, speculated that part of the motivation for attacking an LA-based health system is to find personal health information on celebrities and hold that information for ransom or sell it to news organizations. He states that, "[t]he most private and potentially embarrassing information about all of us can be found in our medical records, and they often sit exposed on the vulnerable networks of myriad hospitals, clinics, insurance companies, etc."

Unfortunately, these data breaches are not always avoidable. Dwayne Melancon stated, "There is a tendency to say a company didn't know what they were doing. That is not always the case...In a lot of those cases it isn't negligence, its just something people could not foresee. If they were taking reasonable measures and still got compromised, it may be that they had well-resourced, determined attackers, and any organization could be vulnerable to that."

When personal health information is exposed through breaches, patient lives can hang in the balance. It is important for all decision makers in healthcare organizations to understand these threats and work to combat them daily, from IT staff to privacy and compliance staff.

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There is a tendency to say a company didn't know what they were doing.

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