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Addressing Top EHR Cybersecurity Threats: Protecting Patient Data in Healthcare

| July 10, 2024 | By
Abstract image of lock and circuits representing EHR cybersecurity

Healthcare institutions have become prime targets for cyberattacks in recent years, jeopardizing key systems. Driven by prospective financial gain and identity theft, fraudsters penetrate electronic health records (EHRs) and web systems, putting sensitive patient information at risk.

EHR security has never been more critical to ensure patient trust and institutional integrity, and your organization needs a starting point to implement safeguards. Uncover the top security threats targeting healthcare organizations and ways you can protect your EHR data.

Identifying EHR Security Vulnerabilities

Personal health information (PHI) is as intricately tied to individuals as a fingerprint. It’s part of who each individual is, containing medical histories, diagnoses, and sensitive identity details. If this information falls into the wrong hands, care quality and trust suffer. Maintain data integrity and compliance by knowing how to identify some of the most common cybersecurity threats.

Phishing Attacks

You’ve probably seen phishing attempts in your personal email, in addition to your organizational systems. These fake emails and alerts trick users into sharing sensitive details, such as passwords, so fraudsters can take control of systems and accounts. They’ve become increasingly difficult to identify, incorporating all the trappings of legitimate communications including spoofed sender addresses, fake links, virus-filled attachments, and even malicious password-protected documents. 

But stop! Analyze the details in your email messages before taking any action, and walk through a few protective steps first. One quick way to prevent phishing is by implementing multifactor authentication (MFA), only permitting access to systems and personal data through a combination of passwords and personal codes. You may also consider:

  • Email filters
  • Network access control
  • Data backups
  • Security patches

Data Breaches and Vulnerabilities

Health data is confidential and restricted to specific personnel to protect patients, but breaches can still occur. A breach can be an innocent mistake, for instance, when a team member shares data across departments without understanding the receiving party’s authorization or need to know (internal breach). 

Breaches are much more serious, however, if hackers penetrate EHR systems (external breach). Cybersecurity issues like these interfere with healthcare delivery by affecting the EHR system, devices used to access it, or both.

Additionally, many data breaches come as a result of losing unencrypted devices containing patient health information, such as employee laptops.

Malware and Ransomware Attacks

Malware can enter EHRs paired with another type of attack, such as phishing, working behind the scenes to steal personal data, impair networks and devices, and covertly monitor your activity. 

Even if malware doesn’t directly penetrate the EHR, it can spread there via devices that share the network, deleting and compromising information and shutting the whole system down. It may even take the form of ransomware, which is malware that locks your system down until a “ransom” of money is paid to the attackers. In one recent malware attack, UnitedHealth was forced to pay a $22 million ransom for a breach caused by its lack of multifactor authentication.

Don’t EHRs offer protection? Yes and no. Off-the-shelf EHRs incorporate software patches and updates you can quickly install to protect your system. However, those changes can take months to roll out and get approved by the FDA, leaving your organization exposed to malware, ransomware, and unauthorized access. The better bet is a personalized EHR that gives your team control to deploy updates without relying on vendor support.

Encryption Blind Spots

Encrypting data establishes protocols to prevent unauthorized access and preserve confidentiality. The benefit of encryption is that it protects users, but attackers can use it to their advantage, too. Malware sneaks through the cracks when hackers encrypt their malicious traffic. They impersonate a legitimate team member accessing your EHR, eluding antivirus programs. 

Using unique usernames and passwords can help to control access to PHI. Consider the following system weaknesses:

  • Are user passwords changed only once a year?
  • Are user passwords something simple like a pet’s name? 
  • Do users log out upon leaving their computers?

Knuckle down on your organization’s encryption and security efforts by rotating passwords every few months, as well as using password generators to create random and hard-to-guess passwords with special characters. You can even go a step beyond by implementing firewalls to filter traffic and improve network security.

How to Address EHR Security Threats

Cybersecurity threats require unique approaches depending on the attack, but your organization can implement several best practices that serve as the map to navigate any situation. Start today with five preventive measures that’ll keep your organization prepared for anything.

1. Analyze

Healthcare organizations should always be vigilant, but it helps to make security initiatives part of your standard processes. One thing we suggest is conducting an annual security assessment to answer the question, “What might we be missing?”

Protect your organization from breaches and ensure HIPAA compliance by addressing EHR security gaps, administrative processes, and safeguards. Vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, and firewall problems can expose PHI, but it’s possible to get in front of them.

2. Plan

Does your team know what to do if EHR security is compromised? HIPAA requires that healthcare organizations establish cybersecurity plans to support all departments, ranging from IT to clinical to legal. 

Your response plan should include processes for identifying, tracking, and containing security incidents. This can become a complex process as you proactively establish methods for evaluating each type of incident, its threat level, and mitigation steps.

3. Educate

Make sure your staff understands the organization's cybersecurity policies and expectations for acceptable use. Some basic requirements may include keeping their devices updated with the latest EHR security patches or mobile phone encryption. You may have to occasionally adjust based on emerging threats, so be sure to clearly communicate any changes in the response plan to staff members.

4. Protect

Keep confidential information on lockdown. You can encrypt sensitive data and maintain network security by limiting access via personal devices, restricting which staffers have access to PHI, and updating your systems. It goes beyond the EHR, too. Encrypt data in transit and at rest across all devices, systems, and emails so it’s useless to attackers.

5. Invest

Cybersecurity is an important investment, and it can’t be effective on a shoestring budget. Maintain an adequate budget for network security, staff, and security software. Remember, even the most effective EHR can be vulnerable if the people, policies, and systems around them are inadequate.

How to Compare the Security of EHR Systems

Choosing an EHR isn’t like most purchases where you look at the name brand and the price. It’s a serious investment that organizations must think through from all angles, asking questions about security measures, incident response plans, backups, recovery, and more. The research and comparison process can be extensive, but you can simplify it by factoring in the following key considerations.

Standards and Certifications

The EHR you select should be certified compliant by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC). As part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), ONC advances healthcare IT capabilities and sets the groundwork for data-sharing expectations. Not sure if the EHR options you’re weighing fit the bill? Look for:

  • HIPAA and HITECH compliance
  • Interoperability with key systems
  • Elevated information security


Encryption is like an invisible shield because it only gives information access with the right credentials. Look for ways EHRs grant and prevent access, including the roles of password policies and MFA.

Backup and Recovery

The worst-case scenario is that your organization loses everything, so how is your data being backed up? Before making a decision, look at how often different EHRs create system backups, where information is stored, and what recovery steps you can expect from unique solutions.

User Support

Give your team software to navigate any threat. Look for an EHR vendor that offers users help with understanding security procedures—they may just be able to assist you in resolving incidents, too.

Improve Your Organization’s EHR Security

Navigating EHR security is a heavy lift, but it helps when you know what you’re up against. Phishing, data breaches, malware, and encryption missteps present some of the most invasive threats, and regular monitoring and optimization can mean the difference between small disturbances and disasters.

Is your cybersecurity up to par? Inadequate EHR security can result in noncompliance and fines. HIPAA violations alone range from $100 - $1.5 million and can harm your organization. Prevent these repercussions by evaluating your technology. Just ask the right questions about its design, including:

  • Does my current EHR offer encryption, auditing, backup and recovery, and secure user access?
  • Can I get training and support for EHR management, or is this vendor-controlled?
  • Is backup and recovery easy to understand and manage?
  • Does my EHR allow secure patient communications?

Answering “no” to any of these questions might signal that it’s time to make a change! Juno EHR is designed BY clinicians FOR clinicians to work the way you do. Our software is certified compliant with HIPAA, HITECH, and SOC 2 to ensure PHI safety and security.

Take your EHR to the next level by not only keeping data secure but also handing your team the controls. Juno EHR’s Build-a-Module provides personalization, usability, and easy-to-use workflows so waiting around for vendors becomes a thing of the past. Discover the benefits for your organization.