‘Pushing the Boundaries’ to Deliver Care Also Stretches Cybersecurity

Dr. Sean Kelly
Apr 01, 2020

A crisis often brings out the best of the best. We’re seeing that now in the healthcare community, where many of our colleagues are truly rising to the occasion. We are all pulling together and doing everything we can to address the surge of COVID-19 patients. In disaster scenarios like a pandemic, by definition, demands outweigh resources. So, what do we do?

Well, we do whatever it takes, however we can, in the best way we can – that’s how we operate when we are in crisis mode. We don’t always have the exact tools we need, so…we innovate! Ingenuity (and maybe a little duct tape) is a big part of succeeding in the toughest of times.

Entire hospitals are doing the “MacGyver” thing to craft solutions to daunting problems. We all have severe shortages of PPE (personal protective equipment) which place our clinical staff at risk. So, in many cases, we are using UV lamps or heating N95 masks in ovens to decontaminate them for re-use. We are even using 3D printers and training staff to build face shields.

Healthcare IT teams have been front and center in these efforts. In order to reduce infection risk and need for PPE, they have shifted many workflows to remote access. They are rapidly scaling up telehealth platforms and Zoom meetings, trying to accommodate the shift to virtual workflows. And they’re doing this at a time when everyone else on the planet is trying to use that same internet bandwidth.

We are pushing the boundaries in every way. Although it’s inspiring, it’s also very concerning.
That’s because “pushing the boundaries” means stressing these systems beyond the capacity and scale they were designed to safely handle. And it’s happening everywhere. From purely a usage standpoint, consider healthcare IT – it simply isn’t designed to handle this volume of demand. You think you’re frustrated because your Netflix program is blinking out? Imagine the neurologist trying to assess a stroke patient’s garbled speech, who suddenly faces a bandwidth crunch over their telehealth platform.

Stressing the system like this also stretches security, safety, and privacy limits to the brink. Unfortunately, this opens doors of vulnerability to cyber criminals, identity thieves, and phishing attack scammers. We are often trying to piece together and ramp up IT solutions using the same internet you’re using at home to stream Amazon Prime movies, and it burdens the system greatly. Cyber criminals know this, they know how to take advantage of any holes in the system, and they’re really good at innovating, too.

So, as we said, we’re seeing inspiring examples of the best of the best… incredible human innovation, sacrifice and achievement. Unfortunately, crises like these don’t just bring out the best of the best. They can also bring out the worst of the worst, with cybercriminals preying upon the vulnerable systems and people to take advantage of the chinks in our armor. Healthcare is dealing with the imperfections of infrastructure at scale. We are doing what is necessary to get us through this phase of the COVID-19 crisis, but from a cybersecurity perspective, that means vulnerability.

In my next post, I’ll talk about protecting your flank and your digital identity amidst this crisis.