Cyber Vulnerability In Rural Health

Baha Zeidan

By Baha Zeidan, co-founder and CEO, Azalea Health.

Rural hospitals are facing an exorbitant amount of pressure, and the pressure doesn’t seem likely to subside any time soon.

Whether it’s the ongoing labor shortage, the constantly changing regulatory environment or other market forces, the headwinds, at times, seem insurmountable. Couple those concerns with the constant worries about cyberattacks and security vulnerabilities, and the moment seems even more challenging.

It’s not that rural health organizations can’t tackle any of the issues head-on. It’s more a matter of rural health organizations often don’t have the staff or resources to address this topic.

As a result, security is often an afterthought. How rural hospitals and communities focus on security presents an interesting dilemma because they’re vulnerable from a cybersecurity side and particularly vulnerable if their security posture is left unaddressed.

According to the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform, 150 rural hospitals nationwide closed between 2005 and 2019, and even more closed in 2020. While funding has helped slow the trend of closures amid the pandemic, rural providers still face challenges, partly because they have higher proportions of vulnerable patients, the elderly or the chronically ill.

However, rural health providers still have an arrow left in their quiver: technology. Increasingly, they’re turning to technology to ensure their staff can focus on delivering quality healthcare to patients without forgoing the most pressing needs and cybersecurity in particular.

Cybersecurity is the centerpiece of the path forward

Last year was among the worst years for ransomware attacks on healthcare. Healthcare is an ideal target; private health data is lucrative to sell on the dark web, and providers are more likely to pay ransoms with lives on the line.

Ransomware-as-a-service has also made it easier than ever to launch an attack, making it critical to invest in health IT platforms with built-in security solutions.

However, many rural providers cannot afford to invest in the same technology as their larger counterparts. They often face lean IT teams and limited budgets, constraining their investments and limiting what percentage of their budget they can spend on security.

Rural providers often find themselves on the unfortunate side of the digital divide, whether it’s clinician shortages or a suboptimal revenue cycle that results in a lack of capital. The result is that they may be unaware of the latest security updates, and even if they are, they often can’t implement them.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Rural providers can take steps to stay secure.

When it comes to cybersecurity, smaller organizations do not need to focus their limited resources on hiring full-time, dedicated IT staff focused on cybersecurity and keeping systems secure. A cloud provider can invest in monitoring, upgrading, and ensuring they have all the right, secure tools to protect that environment.

The right technology partner puts security first. Cloud-based IT solutions can update automatically, eliminating the need for an IT specialist or consultant to install updates manually.

Since an overwhelming number of security breaches are due to human error, rural providers must make ongoing education and training an integral part of their offerings for staff and patients.

Bad actors will take advantage of disparate IT solutions that aren’t integrated and interoperating securely. The more integrated IT solutions are — such as EHR, revenue cycle management software and telehealth — the fewer attack points cyber criminals can take advantage of.

Cybersecurity must be the centerpiece of any IT investment to make this a reality. Even if rural providers do not have the resources to make cybersecurity a centerpiece, they can look to outsource those responsibilities to a reputable third-party partner.

Doing so will allow an expert to focus on the cybersecurity risks and the solutions that offer protection. At the same time, providers can empower their clinicians to focus on what’s most important: the patient experience.

In the long run, the change will be positive.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing challenges will leave rural health providers better positioned, even if many are behind on the curve.

The pandemic didn’t necessarily prompt the change, but it accelerated it. The pandemic served as the catalyst many providers needed to make changes.

Consider the proliferation of telehealth

Before the pandemic, many did not have the software to offer a telehealth option. While broadband coverage gaps have made telehealth inaccessible for many, many organizations found ways to debut new solutions to ensure the patient experience remained front and center even amid the most challenging circumstances.

Every rural hospital is different, and no one-size-fits-all solution works for every organization. But solutions that can be customized to meet a provider’s specific needs can help position organizations for tomorrow’s healthcare needs.

Even when faced with a slate of new and long-standing challenges, rural providers’ investments in enabling digital transformation will position their organizations for success and stability tomorrow.

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