Building a Cybersecurity Culture in Healthcare: Engaging Staff in Data Protection

Cybersecurity threats have become one of the most urgent issues in the healthcare industry. In 2023, over 540 healthcare organizations experienced data breaches, which affected 112 million individuals. Experts predict these incidents will continue to rise as cybercriminals use artificial intelligence (AI) and complex malicious software (malware) to exploit vulnerabilities in healthcare systems.1  

Many healthcare organizations turn to technology to enhance cybersecurity. Vendors offer many tools to protect data and deter cybercriminals, such as firewalls and intrusion detection systems. However, it’s essential not to forget the human element. Your employees are one of your most valuable assets for safeguarding data and patient privacy. 

Creating a strong cybersecurity culture in healthcare requires a multi-step approach. The most effective organizations provide hands-on training and establish clear security protocols. They also have supportive leadership that empowers all employees to play an active role in cybersecurity. 

This guide covers everything you need to know about building a culture of cybersecurity — including practical strategies and ways to balance security and usability. 

The Importance of Staff Engagement in Cybersecurity

All healthcare employees interact with workplace data regularly and require a certain level of IT access. Doctors and nurses handle confidential patient records, while administrators access sensitive financial information. Even janitorial staff can access specific data systems related to their duties. For example, they may need access to infection control data and incident reports to maintain a safe and hygienic environment.

This widespread access to information means your staff members are the first line of defense against data breaches and cyberattacks. Attentive employees can spot potential security threats before an incident occurs. For example, a nurse could notice their computer behaving strangely and alert leadership about a possible cyberattack. Staff can also take proactive steps to protect data, such as creating secure passwords and encrypting patient records. 

It’s also important to note that cybercriminals often use social engineering to gain unauthorized access to information. The Office of Information Security defines social engineering as “the manipulation of human psychology for one’s own gain.”2 Cybercriminals use this approach to trick staff into giving them access to computers, routers, medical records, and more. 

Social engineering takes many forms. For example, cybercriminals can impersonate leaders on the phone or over email to trick staff into disclosing information.2  Additionally, an attacker could leave a USB drive infected with malware on a receptionist’s desk. If the employee inserts the device into their computer, the attacker can create a backdoor into the network and steal important files.3 

Building a culture of cybersecurity helps employees recognize and prevent these threats. However, many healthcare organizations don’t provide the training and support staff needed to safeguard data. According to Statista, 28% of healthcare organizations only offer sporadic cybersecurity training, and 10% provide no training. Only 14% of organizations give monthly training.4 Uneducated employees may fall victim to cyberattacks or not secure data properly, leading to breaches. 

10 Strategies for Promoting Security Awareness 

Fortunately, healthcare organizations can use many simple yet effective strategies to foster cybersecurity awareness. The time and money you invest into these preventative measures can significantly improve your cybersecurity culture. 

1. Establish Clear Cybersecurity Policies and Procedures 

Creating clear cybersecurity policies and protocols for your entire organization is vital. These rules help employees understand the expectations regarding their behavior and responsibilities in maintaining a secure environment. They also reduce the risk of errors and miscommunication that could lead to cybersecurity incidents. 

Start by consulting applicable laws and regulations. Your cybersecurity policies should align with all relevant regulations to guarantee compliance. These laws vary by geographic location but may include: 

  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA): This law requires healthcare organizations to safeguard individuals’ protected health information (PHI). Covered entities can only disclose PHI under specific circumstances and should only allow employees to access this information if they need it to perform their duties.5 
  • Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act: HITECH strengthened the data security and privacy guidelines established by HIPAA. This act incentivized the adoption of electronic health records and penalizes Medicare-eligible healthcare providers who don’t use this technology. It also added a new Breach Notification Rule that requires organizations to notify affected individuals of a security breach within 60 days of discovery.6
  • California civil codes: California requires healthcare organizations to notify residents if an unauthorized entity accessed their unencrypted personal information.7

Use these regulations as the foundation for your cybersecurity policies. Your guidelines should also cover these essential areas:

  • Incident response: Outline procedures for responding to cybersecurity incidents. This plan should designate an incident response team and define their responsibilities. It should also include steps for identifying, containing, documenting, and reporting incidents. 
  • Employee responsibilities: Clearly define your staff’s responsibilities for maintaining cybersecurity. Include guidelines for maintaining data confidentiality and device security. You should also create protocols for managing passwords and reporting security incidents. Additionally, the protocols should outline how staff should respond to phishing scams and other cyber threats. 
  • Access control: According to the principle of least privilege, employees should only have the minimum access needed for their job responsibilities. Use multi-factor authentication and granular access control to restrict access on an individual basis. Healthcare organizations should also have protocols to cut off access when employees quit or get terminated. 
  • Incident alerting: Create a communication plan to alert staff of a cyber event. This plan may include emails, text messages, and overhead announcements inside the facility. 
  • Physical security: Many healthcare organizations store data on physical devices like laptops and portable workstations. Create protocols to safeguard these devices onsite and offsite. For example, you may require employees to lock laptops inside cabinets when not in use. Staff should also encrypt sensitive data to prevent unauthorized access if devices get lost or stolen. 
  • Monitoring: Information technology (IT) staff should routinely monitor systems and devices for vulnerabilities. This monitoring may include regular risk assessments, penetration tests, and vulnerability scans. 
  • Downtime: In some cases, a severe cyberattack could result in an outage that disrupts your organization’s operations. You may lose access to patient records, systems, and critical infrastructure. Create protocols to make sure patients continue receiving essential services in an emergency. These protocols could include using paper records to document patient information and track medication inventory. 

Get input from stakeholders throughout this process to make sure your cybersecurity policies are comprehensive and realistic. For example, your IT team can help you assess risk and recommend incident response protocols. Meanwhile, senior leadership can allocate resources and suggest emergency protocols. Additionally, frontline healthcare staff can provide insights into how cybersecurity policies impact workflows and patient care delivery. 

Once you’ve established cybersecurity policies and procedures, you should review them regularly. Make adjustments as needed to keep guidelines up-to-date and respond to emerging threats. 

2. Provide Regular Healthcare Security Training 

Healthcare security training has many benefits for employees at all levels. This education teaches them how to recognize, respond to, and avoid cybersecurity threats. It also allows them to learn about proactive measures they can take to protect the organization. 

Additionally, security training demystifies common misconceptions about cybersecurity. Many people assume the IT department will protect the organization from incidents. However, training teaches staff that everyone is responsible for cybersecurity and gives them the tools to mitigate threats. 

There are many types of healthcare security training, including:

  • Online training modules: Many healthcare organizations create online security training modules. These courses typically include videos, interactive quizzes, and other educational aspects. 
  • In-person workshops: Invite your IT department or an outside consultant to lead cybersecurity workshops onsite. These workshops allow staff to ask questions and participate in interactive learning exercises. 
  • Handouts: Distribute pamphlets about cybersecurity best practices to employees. These handouts could cover strategies for creating secure passwords, tips for recognizing cyber threats, and more. 
  • Role-playing games: Simulate cybersecurity scenarios and assign each employee a role. For instance, nurses could act out how they would respond to an outage caused by a cyberattack. IT professionals could react to simulated threats. 
  • Security information fairs: Coordinate an all-day information fair with cybersecurity speakers and workshops. Employees can also visit booths to participate in hands-on activities and learn about cybersecurity topics. 
  • Seasonal training sessions: Some organizations link cybersecurity training to holidays and other seasonal events. For instance, you could create a December workshop to teach employees about safe online shopping practices and Christmas-themed phishing emails. 

More creative exercises can influence employees more effectively than generic online modules. Consider out-of-the-box ideas like cybersecurity trivia games and themed food truck events to promote awareness and enthusiasm.8  

3. Create Security Champions Within Teams

Security champions model and promote a culture of cybersecurity within teams. They have in-depth knowledge of cybersecurity protocols and policies, allowing them to educate their colleagues on these topics. They can also answer questions and help their teams navigate cybersecurity challenges.10 

Divide your healthcare organization into teams with similar responsibilities and concerns. These teams could include clinical staff, administrators, IT professionals, and support staff. Designate a member of each group to take on a leadership role in cybersecurity. 

Effective security advocates often have these characteristics:10 

  • Leadership experience 
  • Enthusiasm 
  • Curiosity about cybersecurity  
  • The ability to communicate complex security topics with non-experts 

Consider developing a security champion training program to teach these leaders about cybersecurity best practices and methods to support their colleagues. 

4. Reward Adherence to Cybersecurity Protocols 

Some organizations try to use the threat of punishment to scare employees into following cybersecurity protocols. However, research shows that rewards have the biggest effect on staff compliance with security policies.11 

Foster a positive culture of cybersecurity by rewarding employees who follow cybersecurity procedures. Here are a few examples of possible rewards: 

  • Sincere thank you notes from leaders 
  • Bonuses or gift cards for completing optional cybersecurity training 
  • Awards for exceptional compliance with cybersecurity measures 
  • Public acknowledgment of employees who report suspicious activity 
  • Professional development opportunities for staff who want to learn more about cybersecurity 

5. Celebrate Cybersecurity Milestones

Along with individual rewards, you can also coordinate organizational or team celebrations of cybersecurity milestones. For example, you could plan a luncheon for your administrative team after they complete a series of security training workshops. You can also acknowledge milestones like a successful security audit in company-wide emails or newsletters. 

These celebrations promote cybersecurity as a collaborative effort and reinforce the importance of adhering to security practices across the organization. They can also inspire employees to take proactive steps to protect data. 

6. Develop Clear Incident Reporting Guidelines 

Even the most prepared healthcare organizations can experience cybersecurity incidents. Create straightforward reporting procedures so employees can respond appropriately and quickly. These steps may include: 

  • Notify the incident response team by phone or email 
  • Document the incident, including suspicious activities, affected applications, and other details 
  • Collect relevant evidence, if possible, such as screenshots and suspicious emails 
  • Contain the incident 
  • Alert government authorities and affected patients

Healthcare organizations should promise not to retaliate against employees who report incidents, even if they’re responsible. This policy will help create a culture of trust and allow staff to learn from their mistakes. 

7. Reinforce Cybersecurity Awareness Continuously

Healthcare security training shouldn’t be a one-time event. Reinforce your staff’s knowledge with ongoing education initiatives. For example, you can send periodic newsletters about emerging cybersecurity trends and threats. You can also require employees to participate in quarterly or annual training to sharpen their skills. 

8. Highlight Real Cybersecurity Incidents 

Emphasize the importance of cybersecurity awareness by sharing actual incidents with your staff. These examples will help employees understand the consequences of security lapses and reinforce the importance of protecting data. They can also teach staff about various attacks and preventative measures. 

9. Offer Cybersecurity Resources

Develop cybersecurity resources that staff can consult 24/7 to answer their questions or concerns. For instance, your IT department could create an online resource center with articles and videos about security best practices. They can also develop interactive training modules to deepen employees’ knowledge. 

Many cybersecurity associations and government agencies also provide free resources. For example, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has a blog about cutting-edge research and trends in cybersecurity.12 You can share these resources with your staff to help them stay informed.

10. Balance Cybersecurity With Usability 

Healthcare organizations often want to create the most secure environment possible. This desire is understandable, especially given the sensitive nature of healthcare data and the potential consequences of a data breach. However, it’s essential to strike the right balance between security and usability. 

Overly restrictive security policies can frustrate employees and disrupt patient care. Suppose a hospital doesn’t allow specialists to access patients’ diagnostic reports without permission from administrative leaders. This policy may reduce the risk of data leaks and prevent patients from receiving timely and accurate care. 

Organizations should seek feedback from staff from all departments and levels when designing cybersecurity policies. These workers can offer practical advice about promoting data protection without disrupting workflows. It’s also crucial to provide user support and training to help staff overcome cybersecurity-related challenges. 

Leadership’s Role in Cybersecurity 

Leadership plays a vital role in promoting cybersecurity within healthcare organizations. Executives and managers should support security initiatives by allocating enough financial and human resources. For instance, leaders could hire a cybersecurity consultant to lead workshops and offer incentives for participating in optional training. 

Leaders must also foster a proactive security mindset across all levels of the organization. They should communicate the importance of cybersecurity to every employee and encourage teams to work together to address security concerns. They can also boost morale by recognizing exceptional staff members and teams adhering to security protocols. 

Finally, healthcare leaders should also model cybersecurity best practices for their employees. They should actively participate in cybersecurity training sessions and discuss the importance of this education with their teams. They can also send emails with cybersecurity strategies and resources. 

Looking Ahead to The Future of Cybersecurity in Healthcare 

Artificial intelligence is reshaping the cybersecurity landscape and may make it easier to promote a cybersecurity-conscious culture. This innovative technology imitates complex human cognitive processes like solving problems and detecting patterns in data.13

The healthcare industry can harness AI’s power to defend against cyberattacks and data leaks. This technology continuously monitors devices and systems for suspicious activities, improving threat detection. It can also automatically assess and respond to incidents faster than humans.13 These applications will help healthcare organizations stay two steps ahead of cybercriminals and protect sensitive data. 

Additionally, AI may soon address technology and usability gaps in today’s security environment. For example, healthcare organizations could use generative AI to create personalized cybersecurity training materials for staff. They may also use this technology to automate routine healthcare tasks, reducing friction between cybersecurity protocols and operational efficiency. 

Nurture a Culture of Cybersecurity 

Building a culture of cybersecurity doesn’t happen overnight. Educating staff about the importance of data security practices and strategies to reduce risks takes dedication and time. 

Qventive Healthcare can help you protect data and keep staff informed about healthcare security. We’ll assess your organization to identify vulnerabilities and areas of improvement proactively. Based on these findings, we’ll develop a personalized plan to improve your cybersecurity measures and defend your organization from threats. 

Our team will teach your staff how to leverage IT solutions to handle cybersecurity challenges and improve operations. You can also contact our remote help desk support team for quick and friendly assistance whenever you need it. These resources ensure your organization can handle and prevent cybersecurity incidents with minimal stress and disruption. That way, your employees can focus on what matters the most: providing top-notch patient care. 

Contact Qventive today to schedule a time to discuss your practice’s unique goals and needs. You can also subscribe to our blog to get more educational content delivered directly to your inbox.