An Unseen State Of Emergency In Healthcare: Lessons From The Change Healthcare Cyber Breach

The healthcare industry has long been a prime target for cybercriminals, and the Change Healthcare attack has once again highlighted the industry’s vulnerability. As digital transformation continues to reshape the healthcare sector, the industry grapples with an ever-evolving threat where sophisticated attacks can have devastating consequences for patient care, financial stability and organizational reputation.

In February 2024, UnitedHealth Group, the parent company of Change Healthcare, disclosed a major cyberattack that had disrupted the latter’s operations—a vital component of the healthcare giant’s claims processing and revenue cycle management services. Change Healthcare, which processes billions of billing transactions annually, found itself at the epicenter of a widespread crisis that reverberated across the healthcare ecosystem.

Security Vulnerabilities: Human Error And Software Flaws

The investigation into the breach revealed a troubling combination of security vulnerabilities. Firstly, the attackers were able to exploit a software vulnerability, highlighting the healthcare industry’s struggle to maintain up-to-date cybersecurity measures. Despite the availability of security updates, many healthcare organizations often lag behind in implementing them, leaving their systems exposed to known exploits.

Secondly, the breach also underscored the human element in cybersecurity risks. According to reports, the attackers were able to gain access to the network through compromised employee credentials. Social engineering tactics can leverage the inherent vulnerabilities of human behavior, where even the most security-conscious individuals could fall victim to sophisticated manipulation techniques.

The Impact: Disrupted Patient Care, Financial Losses And Reputational Damage

The consequences of the cyberattack were far-reaching and profound. One of the most tangible impacts was the disruption to patient care. With the company’s systems locked down, healthcare providers found themselves unable to access patient records, fill prescriptions or process insurance claims. This logistical nightmare left patients facing delayed or interrupted treatment, potentially jeopardizing their health and well-being.

The financial toll of the breach was also significant. According to a survey by the American Hospital Association (via Fierce Healthcare), “94% of hospitals reported some financial impact stemming from what the trade group is calling ‘the most significant and consequential cyberattack’ on healthcare in the country’s history.” Providers struggled to maintain their revenue cycles, leading to delayed payments and cash flow issues. Additionally, the costs of responding to the incident—including forensic investigations, system restoration and regulatory compliance—added to the financial burden shouldered by healthcare organizations.

Beyond the immediate operational and financial impacts, the breach also inflicted reputational damage on the industry. The high-profile nature of the attack, coupled with the sensitivity of the compromised data, eroded public trust in the healthcare system’s ability to safeguard sensitive patient information.

Disruption And Recovery: The Uphill Battle

The aftermath of the cyberattack highlights the immense challenge of quickly recovering from such a significant disruption. Despite UnitedHealth Group’s efforts to disburse more than $3.3 billion in financial assistance to affected providers, the company acknowledged that the disruptions could persist—underscoring the complexity of restoring normal operations.

The sheer scale and interconnectedness of the healthcare ecosystem compounded the difficulty in recovering from the breach. As a central hub for claims processing and revenue cycle management, the disruption of Change Healthcare’s services rippled through the entire industry, with providers, payers and patients all feeling the impact. Rebuilding and reestablishing secure connections between these disparate systems proved to be a daunting task.

Moreover, the investigation into the attack and the efforts to mitigate further risks required close collaboration between UnitedHealth Group, cybersecurity experts and law enforcement agencies. This coordination, while essential, added to the complexity and timeline of the recovery process.

Reexamining Old Methods

This cyberattack serves as a sobering reminder of the healthcare industry’s vulnerabilities and the urgent need for comprehensive cybersecurity strategies. Several key lessons include:

  • Removing or minimizing reliance on human decision-making. With human error being the leading cause of breaches, it makes sense to view cybersecurity training as a basic requirement but not the solution. Instead, we must look toward advanced technologies that can autonomously and intelligently detect and respond to potential incursions from the hardware level. Such solutions are already available but not yet widely adopted.
  • Building holistic systems that include the hardware. Software security has long been the traditional form of cybersecurity protection, but if the past decade has shown us anything, it’s that software solutions are far from adequate when it comes to rapid detection and response. It inherently puts great pressure on human operators to maintain patches and updates. At the same time, this database approach means that software solutions fail at detecting zero-day threats. With its engineered and closed environment, hardware performs much better, as it’s able to monitor and respond in real-time as well as effectively use AI to react quickly and decisively.

This can act as a strong complement to our traditional wisdom:

  • Prioritizing proactive patching and software updates. Healthcare organizations must prioritize promptly maintaining up-to-date software and applying security patches. Failure to do so exposes systems to known vulnerabilities that cybercriminals can exploit.
  • Collaborating across the healthcare ecosystem. Encouraging collaboration and information sharing among healthcare providers, payers and industry stakeholders can enhance collective cybersecurity awareness and enable a more coordinated response to emerging threats.
  • Implementing robust incident response and recovery plans. Developing and regularly testing comprehensive incident response and disaster recovery plans can help healthcare organizations minimize the impact of a successful cyberattack and expedite recovery.

Strengthening data backup and resilience. Ensuring the availability and integrity of critical data through robust backup and redundancy measures can help healthcare organizations quickly restore operations and patient care in the event of a breach.

Addressing these lessons and adopting a proactive, multilayered approach to cybersecurity that includes the hardware layer can help ensure that the healthcare industry is building a more resilient and secure ecosystem that safeguards patient data, maintains uninterrupted care and protects the industry’s financial and reputational integrity.

The Change Healthcare cyberattack serves as a sobering wake-up call for the healthcare industry. As the sector continues its digital transformation, the need for robust cybersecurity measures has never been more pressing.

This article was written by our CEO, Camellia Chan, for the Forbes Technology Council. Originally published on Forbes:

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