Healthcare systems’ digital transformations are highlighting new cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

Over the last few years, large scale data breaches have become disturbingly commonplace across multiple industries. Nowhere is this more worrying, however, than the healthcare sector, however. As healthcare organisations begin to feel the positive effects of their digital transformation efforts, escalating cybersecurity risks threaten to undermine hard-won progress.  

Unified health data platforms create new vulnerabilities 

Among the most recent breaches is the February 2024 attack on United Health Group’s (UHG) prescription provider, Optum. On February 21, UHG confirmed to the press that Optum was forced to temporarily shut down its IT systems due to a massive cyber attack, Pymnts reported. These systems include the Change Healthcare Platform, the largest payment exchange platform between doctors, pharmacies, healthcare providers, and patients in the US.

The attack caused widespread disruption across the country. This included leaving many patients unable to process insurance claims or accept certain kinds of discount prescription cards. As a result, patients went without potentially lifesaving medicine. The breach was so serious that the American Hospital Association issued a statement recommending “all health care organisations that were disrupted or are potentially exposed by this incident consider disconnection from Optum until it is independently deemed safe to reconnect to Optum.”

The danger is that, while the negative effects of siloed, legacy healthcare data management systems have been felt for years, the digital tools used to alleviate these pain points come with added vulnerabilities of their own. Nevertheless, the benefits of a digitally transformed healthcare data platform are needed now more than ever. 

Digital healthcare platforms fight clinician burnout, staff shortages, and more

In 2022, the World Health Organisation (WHO) data suggesting an estimated 41% to 52% of healthcare workers suffer from burnout. At least 25% healthcare workers reported symptoms of anxiety, depression, and burnout. 

A report by Wolters Kluwer argues: “the first step to creating systems that help reduce burnout is modernising clinical workflows.” Successfully accomplishing this would, they argue, “reduce administrative burden and increase efficiency.” 

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is experiencing more burnout than ever, according to a 2024 report. According to the British Medical Journal (BMJ), burnout significantly impacts retention throughout the NHS. As a result, more staff are reportedly thinking about leaving than ever before. Admittedly, burnout is a long-standing issue in the NHS and healthcare organisations in general. However, NHS Employers’ report notes that the pandemic placed further burdens on NHS staff and exacerbated the problem. 

As the world’s largest nationalised healthcare organisation, the NHS serves approximately 65 million people. Supposedly, the NHS has the ability to use huge amounts of its data to make better decisions. This, in conjunction with experienced staff and cutting edge technology, could help not only improve decisonmaking, but also reduce clinician burnout. Some examples of possible applications include: 

  • Using patient data in conjunction with Google’s DeepMind to predict when patients are at risk of developing kidney failure.
  • Collaborating with NVIDIA to deploy open source AI across several hospital trusts in order to quickly analyse medical imagery. The deployment has already shown promise in speeding the detection of Covid-19, breast cancer, brain tumours, dementia, and strokes.

The Federated Data Platform—all the NHS’ eggs in one basket? 

Right now, the NHS is in the process of centralising the personal patient records of millions of UK citizens. The Federated Data Platform aims to unite all the patient data used in the above examples. The project will drive cutting edge AI deployments to improve quality of care. Not onyl that, but it is expected to improve the quality of life and work for clinicians across the country. “Clinicians will be able to access live data of available theatre slots, staff availability and individual patient data suitable for particular procedures at the touch of a button,” said Matthew Taylor, NHS Confederation CEO.

The NHS has previously struggled to unify its data, with opposition forcing it to abandon two similar projects since 2012. One risk is the organisation’s entanglement with controversial data mining company Palantir. Some fear that association with the US firm could further complicate the process of obtaining public approval. Other critics highlight the increased risk of a high profile, large scale data breach the likes of which hit Optum. 

“Inevitably, this will bring many challenges,” wrote tech author Bernard Marr in a recent op-ed. “Healthcare data is some of the most sensitive data that there is, and the task of keeping it secure while still ensuring that it’s accessible when and where it’s needed is no simple feat.”

Healthcare organisations desperately need the benefits that unified data management platforms can provide. However, if these benefits are to be realise, then cybersecurity remains the biggest challenge to be faced.

  • Cybersecurity

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