The critical imperative in dental practice cybersecurity

Dr. Arnold Rosen
Dr. Arnold Rosen.

Dental practices must adhere to HIPAA to safeguard patient data, mandating rigorous security measures, controlled access, data encryption, and secure record-keeping.

Protecting your patient’s protected health information (PHI) and your personal and business life goes way beyond HIPAA. As digital interactions have become second nature, so, too, has the frequency and sophistication of cyberthreats and the impact cyber compromise can have on your personal and business life.

In today’s digital age of dentistry, safeguarding patient PHI and personal data has emerged as a paramount concern for dental practices of all sizes. This article delves into recent cyberthreats targeting the dental industry and underscores the critical importance of data protection. 

Things you should know

Healthcare practices such as Aspen Dental have increasingly become targets of hackers due to the wealth of information that goes along with patient care. Healthcare breaches account for 79% of reported breaches across all industries.

Breaches often result in HIPAA fines when practices fail to implement an effective HIPAA compliance program. The average fine in 2022 was $98,643, and 65% of fines issued that year were given to small practices, according to a January 24, 2023, article written by Lee Barrett and Michael Parisi.

Ransomware's reign: The BlackCat Gang

Ransomware -- malicious software that encrypts data and demands a ransom for decryption -- has cast a looming shadow over the dental realm. The notorious BlackCat ransomware gang has garnered attention for its relentless attacks on healthcare entities, including dental practices. These attacks not only disrupt practice operations but also jeopardize the confidentiality of patient data.

The giants in the crosshairs: Schein cyberattacks

Even dental industry giants like Henry Schein have been in the crosshairs of cyberthreats. Henry Schein faced cyberattacks that posed the risk of massive data leaks. These incidents are a stark reminder that cybercriminals have cast their net wide, targeting dental practices ranging from corporate giants to local "mom-and-pop" offices.

The vulnerability of dental practices

Cybercriminals often assume that dental practices have less stringent security policies than other healthcare entities, rendering them attractive targets. Recent incidents, such as the cybersecurity disruption experienced by The Aspen Group, have underscored the vulnerability of dental practices to cyberthreats. Such vulnerabilities can lead to temporary disruptions in practice operations and the compromise of patient data.

The MCNA Dental wake-up call

One of the most alarming recent incidents involved MCNA Dental, affecting more than 8.9 million clients. This breach is a stark reminder of the pervasive nature of cyberthreats in the dental industry. These threats do not discriminate based on practice size, potentially impacting millions of patients.

ADA Practice Institute DDS Safe ransomware attack

Additionally, as reported by ADA News, an estimated 432 dental practices were potentially affected by a ransomware attack involving DDS Safe, a service from the Digital Dental Record. This incident reinforces the omnipresent threat that dental practices face, even through third-party services.

Compliance as a shield: HIPAA and patient privacy

Ensuring patient privacy is not just a moral imperative, it's a legal one. To safeguard patient data, dental practices must adhere to HIPAA.

HIPAA compliance mandates rigorous security measures, controlled access, data encryption, and secure record-keeping. Furthermore, the HIPAA Breach Notification Rule compels practices to inform promptly affected patients in the event of a data breach.

Cybersecurity best practices for dental practices

The ADA Practice Institute offers the following invaluable strategies for dental practices to fortify their cybersecurity defenses:

  1. Exercise caution with email attachments: Many cyberattacks originate from email attachments or links from unknown sources. When in doubt about the sender or attachment, err on the side of caution and refrain from opening them.

  2. Conduct employee training: Educating your staff on basic data security practices is paramount. Knowledgeable employees serve as the first line of defense against cyberthreats.

  3. Educate your employees and stakeholders about social engineering: Educate everyone in your business world about the sophistication and frequency of social engineering and recent approaches used by cybercriminals.

  4. Encrypt your data: Critical patient data stored on computers must be protected through full-disk encryption software. Files and databases containing patient information should be password-protected.

  5. Conduct regular data backups: Routine data backup, including encrypted off-site copies, is essential for preparedness in the event of a ransomware attack.

  6. Maintain cyber defenses: Ensure that antivirus and antimalware software are updated daily on all network computers. Regularly check for and install security updates.

  7. Select secure programs carefully: Minimize the number of digital programs and channels used to collaborate and share documents for case planning, referrals, lab orders, and patient instructions.

Safeguarding patient trust

Data protection is the foundation of trust between dental practices and their patients. Compliance with regulations like HIPAA is not merely a legal obligation but an ethical commitment to preserving patient confidentiality. Beyond compliance, proactive cybersecurity measures, diligent employee training, and robust data protection practices are indispensable for safeguarding patient data and upholding the integrity of dental practices.

Cyberthreats present a genuine and growing risk to dental practices of all sizes. Every dental professional must prioritize cybersecurity to maintain patient trust and safeguard sensitive information. In the digital age, protecting patient data is not merely a choice, it is a moral and professional obligation.

Dr. Arnold Rosen is an accomplished practitioner, administrator, and academician in the field of dentistry. He received his specialty training in prosthodontics and maxillofacial prosthetics from the Boston University School of Graduate Dentistry and Sloan Kettering Memorial Cancer Institute. He holds a Master of Business Administration from Boston University. Dr. Rosen has held several key positions in his career, including director of hospital dentistry at the New England Medical Center Hospital and co-founder and director of the Dental Implant Center at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. He has served as a consultant and co-founder of Global Telemedix and is the founder of Transcend Inc. He currently serves as the founder and CEO of Awrel LLC. 

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