Tag Archives: hospitals

Hackers are increasingly targeting hospitals — IVs and other devices are at risk

More than half of the internet-connected medical devices in hospitals have known vulnerabilities that can put patients’ data and health at risk, a new report shows. The researchers said security threats within healthcare environments remain under-addressed, despite large investments, and much more is needed to ensure that hospitals systems are safe from hacking attacks. 

Image credit: Flickr / Diyan Nenov.

Health organizations are an attractive target for hackers because of their medical and billing information from patients, which can then be sold for insurance fraud or even be used to extort money from the hospital. Hackers can get a big profit, with medical records sold at the black market valued at 50 times more than stolen credit cards.

A hospital’s database can be breached in several ways. The easiest option is social hacking — obtaining credentials from one of the individuals with legitimate access to the network. The second option, much more challenging, involves using brute force to gain access to the network of a health center in an unauthorized way.

A study from 2019 identified over 1,400 hospital-related breaches between 2009 and 2019, affecting 170 million people. The researchers classified the leaked data into three categories: medical information, including diagnoses and treatment, demographic, such as names and addresses, and financial, such as payment info. 

“Healthcare is a top target for cyber-attacks, and even with continued investments in cybersecurity, critical vulnerabilities remain in many of the medical devices hospitals rely on for patient care,” Daniel Brodie, co-founder of Cynerio, said in a statement. “Hospitals and health systems don’t need more data – they need advanced solutions.”

Vulnerable devices

The healthcare cybersecurity company Cynerio went through data from 10 million devices at 300 healthcare facilities and hospitals. The report showed that 53% of all connected medical devices have at least one vulnerability. Additionally, a third of the bedside devices, which patients rely on for their health, have a known critical risk.

Infusion pumps are the most common type of device connected to the internet in hospitals, accounting for 12% of all devices, researchers found. Pumps are also the device most likely to have vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers. This creates a big risk, as someone could hack the system and change the dosage of a medication, for instance.

Most hospital devices are used at least once a month. While this is great for hospitals in terms of getting a good return on the investment, it has consequences for the security of the devices, the report found. If they are frequently used, it means that it can be difficult for hospitals to find the time to update the security of the devices. 

“Without robust healthcare security in place, hospitals are sitting on a ticking time bomb,” the report reads. “A ransomware attack may be able to take down the majority of their IoT (internet of things) infrastructure and the hospital won’t have any visibility into how to proactively prevent the attack or shut it down once it’s launched.” 

Where do hospitals go from here, then? Cynerio’s report said most of the vulnerabilities in devices can be fixed with relative ease, especially because many vulnerabilities are linked to default passwords and settings that hackers can get easily from manuals posted online. It’s a good place to start, but there’s still a long way to go.

The full report can be accessed here. 

Hospital room.

Hospitals in Europe are contributing to the spread of extremely drug-resistant bacteria

New research from the Wellcome Sanger Institute is mapping the spread of extremely drug-resistant (XDR) strains of Klebsiella pneumoniae through hospitals in Europe.

Hospital room.

Image via Pixabay.

As far as antibiotics go, our last line of defense are carbapenem antibiotics; when all other antibiotics fail in dealing with a certain infection, these are sent in to finish the job. However, a Europe-wide survey of the Enterobacteriaceae family of bacteria found that antibiotic-resistant strains of Klebsiella pneumoniae, an opportunistic pathogen that can cause respiratory and bloodstream infections in humans, are spreading through hospitals in Europe. The findings are based on samples taken from patients in 244 hospitals in 32 countries.

Cureless

“In the case of carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae, our findings imply hospitals are the key facilitator of transmission — over half of the samples carrying a carbapenemase gene were closely related to others collected from the same hospital, suggesting that the bacteria are spreading from person-to-person primarily within hospitals,” says Dr. Sophia David, first author of the study.

It is estimated that carbapenem-resistant K. pneumoniae caused 341 deaths in Europe in 2007, a figure that grew to 2,094 by 2015 (a six-fold increase), the authors explain. This high number of deaths is owed to the fact that once carbapenems lose the ability to fight a population of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, doctors have very few options left. Infants, the elderly, and immuno-compromised individuals, whose bodies can’t take the strain of said options, are thus particularly at risk.

The survey, its authors write, is the largest of its kind and the first concrete step towards consistent surveillance of carbapenem-resistant bacteria in Europe. It was built from over 2,000 samples of K. pneumoniae collected from patients across 244 hospitals and sent to the Wellcome Sanger Institute, where the genomes of 1,700 of them were sequenced. The team identified a small cluster of genes that, when expressed, cause a strain to produce enzymes called carbapenemases that neutralizes the antibiotics.

The emergence of certain strains that carry one or more carbapenemase genes is of particular concern to public health, the authors explain, as these strains have spread relatively rapidly. Today’s heavy use of antibiotics in hospitals likely stacks the playing field in favor of these bacteria, the team adds, as they outcompete other strains that are more easily treatable with antibiotics. Samples used in the study were also more likely to be closely related to other samples in the same country rather than across countries, which suggests that national healthcare systems as a whole contribute to spread the strains around.

Not all is lost, however. The team explains that despite the deadliness of this carbapenem-resistant strains, infection control procedures in hospitals — ranging from consideration of how patients move between hospitals to hygiene interventions — still have an important impact.

“We are optimistic that with good hospital hygiene, which includes early identification and isolation of patients carrying these bacteria, we can not only delay the spread of these pathogens, but also successfully control them,” says Professor Hajo Grundmann, co-lead author and Head of the Institute for Infection Prevention and Hospital Hygiene at the Medical Centre, University of Freiburg.

“This research emphasises the importance of infection control and ongoing genomic surveillance of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to ensure we detect new resistant strains early and act to combat the spread of antibiotic resistance.”

The results were made available through MicroReact, a publicly-available web-based tool developed by the Centre for Genomic Pathogen Surveillance to help researchers and healthcare systems chart the spread of antibiotic resistance in pathogens like K. pneumoniae. A second survey is currently being planned.

“Genomic surveillance will be key to tackling the new breeds of antibiotic-resistant pathogen strains that this study has identified,” says Professor David Aanensen, co-lead author and Director of the Centre for Genomic Pathogen Surveillance.

“Currently, new strains are evolving almost as fast as we can sequence them. The goal to establish a robust network of genome sequencing hubs will allow healthcare systems to much more quickly track the spread of these bacteria and how they’re evolving.”

The paper “Epidemic of carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae in Europe is driven by nosocomial spread” has been published in the journal Nature Microbiology.