Technological innovation has significantly evolved in the healthcare space over the past two decades. Now, while this sure has been a major achievement, no innovation truly comes without accompanied perils. And in this case, the associated risk is cybersecurity threats.

Only a year ago, well before the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on health systems worldwide, The Wall Street Journal reported that cyberattacks on healthcare practices had escalated to the point where some doctors had even started turning patients away. Seemingly they couldn’t control the disruption to their operations after having faced an attack.

Dr. Chuck Le
Guest columnist Dr. Chuck Le is the founder of 7 Day Dental and a recognized leader in the field of dentistry.

Dentists face twice as much of a jeopardy scenario since dental clinics are usually small businesses with limited security systems and resources, yet they possess highly valuable and sensitive patient information. It is nothing less than a gold mine for cybercriminals.

This is also especially true as your practice management software usually drives everything right from appointment scheduling, clinical processes like digital x-rays, billing, and use of both electronic health records (EHRs) as well as electronic medical records (EMRs). That same data that’s available to you is also precious to cyber criminals and this makes it highly vulnerable.

So, what exactly can dental practices do to avert security threats and keep their data safe at all times? Read on to know.

1) Adherence to HIPAA rules at every stage of the data lifecycle

A considerable number of healthcare practices across the U.S. face serious financial penalties for not abiding by the rules mentioned within the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996. Dental care practices are no exception to this.

In a mere span of the last seven years alone, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) settled close to 225,000 HIPAA complaint investigations, with around 28,000 cases leading to corrective actions and 75 cases resulting in fines adding up to over $116 million.

It’s up to dentists to make sure that they’re well-updated on the latest amendments happening, and are in complete compliance with these regulations. 

For the most part, HIPAA consists of two major rules with respect to healthcare data protection:

  • The HIPAA Privacy Rule – The Privacy Rule necessitates that healthcare providers have safeguards in place to protect the privacy of patients’ protected health information (PHI) including medical records, medications, insurance particulars, among other private details. This rule also limits the information that can be accessed from and disclosed to third party vendors without having gained prior authorization from the patient’s side.
  • The HIPAA Security Rule – The Security Rule places emphasis on securing the creation, receipt, use, and maintenance of patients’ confidential information by HIPAA-covered entities. This rule essentially sets guidelines and standards for administrative, physical, and technical handling of PHI.

It is also crucial for dental care providers to understand that adherence to HIPAA doesn’t simply end with ensuring all the data that’s flowing in and out of your organization is compliant. It also means that if you have an app for your dental practice, you need to ensure that the app is developed in compliance with HIPAA rules as well.

2) Look to Cloud Adoption

It is extremely crucial for dental care providers to understand that the habit of maintaining a secure backup of their healthcare data has more to do with being able to retrieve it in the event of a security event than it is about being able to use it at present. It is a proactive approach of kinds.

Dental offices need to make sure they have a full-proof recovery plan in place, and that an authentic and dependable copy of backed up patient data is available with them at any given point in time, either in an external device or even better, on a secure web location. 

This can considerably mitigate the magnitude of the breach on the practice and allow operations to resume with minimal, if any, disturbances when trying to recover. 

It is extremely critical for dental care providers to remain far-sighted when it comes to safeguarding their practice against cyber attacks that are targeted at data availability or consistency. The key here is to ensure that backups are detached from production systems and geographically split up so that they aren’t directly linked to systems that might be compromised.

This can easily be done by storing your data on HIPAA-compliant cloud hosting servers that help you create backups. These backups can then be accessed by permitted individuals through any remote location and at any given time, while still maintaining optimal security. 

You can also restore all your data back to another system even if a data breach occurs by leveraging a cloud platform.

3) Conduct a Thorough Audit of your Cybersecurity Protocols

Lastly, conducting thorough audits of the practice’s cybersecurity protocols at fixed intervals can take any dental care provider a long way in ensuring optimal security is being furnished through their end.

Needless to say that such an audit will almost always require third party assistance. The cybersecurity partner you choose will have its cybersecurity expert conduct a comprehensive assessment of the practice’s IT landscape. This includes:

  • The practice’s chosen location and process for data storage,
  • The systems employed by the practice for protecting its data,
  • Who has access to the practice’s data and how exactly is access granted,
  • Total number of onsite team members and those supporting remotely,
  • The practice’s chosen billing company and the latter’s log-in access to the dental practice’s network,
  • The practice’s use of portable storage devices that store or transmit electronic protected health information (ePHI),
  • The practice’s data encryption technology that protects ePHI.

Dental care providers need to keep in mind that although data network vulnerabilities are common, the most common vulnerability lies amongst those who actually use the network – the providers and their teams itself.

The human factor is one of the key sources of ever-increasing data breaches today.

A cybersecurity audit is going to be highly efficacious to inform dentists and their teams of related vulnerabilities and mitigate breaches. Training and audits place optimal focus on IT system strengths and how to avoid human error.

Also, various system tools can be deployed during a cybersecurity audit. These tools can do everything right from gathering essential information about your IT network, scanning it for vulnerabilities, and running vulnerability tests. The problems thus discovered are then provided to your designated IT person for them to take the necessary steps.

It’s recommended that system testing be conducted at least on a quarterly basis if not more frequently. Also, on occasions when a dental practice upgrades, modifies, or adds new network devices or capabilities, it is a must.

All in all, your cybersecurity framework can only be as effective as you want it to be. Put enough thought into employing security protocols, train your teams well and follow these simple steps. You will never have to worry about cyber criminals again.