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Texting in healthcare? Best be secure.

01.12.18

Texting has become a simple, convenient, and entrenched component of our everyday lives. We use it with family, friends, coworkers—and clients. My wife and I text to coordinate day care pickup and drop off of our kids every day. It is a quick and easy alternative to our large, and sometimes overwhelming, volume of email.

And with that convenience comes the temptation for clinicians, care teams, and healthcare providers to communicate sensitive content via text in the workplace. The ability to take a photograph of a wound and share with a colleague for a consult is convenient and effective. The number of patients who want to text a non-urgent question to their providers is also growing, particularly with younger patient populations. Population health teams who want to better engage patients may see texting as an easy format to achieve that.

The problem? Texting is not a secure communication method. The native SMS (short message service) used by many phones, including iPhones (at times), is not encrypted, and messages are sent in plain text over cellular networks. SMS messages are vulnerable to “man-in-the-middle” attacks, in which a third-party eavesdrops or potentially manipulates a conversation. The native message format of iPhones has security risks, too. And when a text message contains protected patient information or images, these risks become significant.

On December 28, 2017 CMS released clarification on text messaging. The highlights:

  • Texting is permissible between care team members if accomplished through a secure platform.
  • Texting of orders: prohibited.
  • Computerized Physician Order Entry (CPOE) is the preferred method of provider order entry.

The first bullet allows some consideration of text messaging but with an important caveat: you must use a secure platform. The last two bullets steer providers to using their EHR systems.

What should you do if you find yourself in a position where text messaging has crept into your culture?

  • Establish a policy to govern the use of text messaging and update your mobile device policy.
  • Determine whether you will implement (and allow your care team to use) a secure texting platform or prohibit texting all together.
  • Consider how secure texting impacts your policies and procedures related to data retention, discovery, and the legal health record. 
  • Educate your patients about secure messaging available on your patient portal.
  • Assess your organization’s usage and level of risk.

  • Stop using unsecure text messaging for patient related communications.

For more information, contact me.

Related content:

Watch our video on adopting technology for success
Read Dan's article on soft cybersecurity skills.

More and more emphasis is being put on cybersecurity by companies of all sizes. Whether it’s the news headlines of notable IT incidents, greater emphasis on the value of data, or the monetization of certain types of attacks, an increasing amount of energy and money is going towards security. Security has the attention of leadership and the board and it is not going away. One of the biggest risks to and vulnerabilities of any organization’s security continues to be its people. Innovative approaches and new technology can reduce risk but they still don’t prevent the damage that can be inflicted by an employee simply opening an attachment or following a link. This is more likely to happen than you may think.

Technology also doesn’t prepare a management team for how to handle the IT response, communication effort, and workforce management required during and after an event. Technology doesn’t lessen the operational impact that your organization will feel when, not if, you experience an event.

So let’s examine the human and operational side of cybersecurity. Below are three factors you should address to reduce risk and prepare your organization for an event:

  1. People: Create and maintain a vigilant workforce
    Ask yourself, “How prepared is our workforce when it comes to security threats and protecting our data? How likely would it be for one of our team members to click on a link or open an attachment that appear to be from our CFO? Would our team members look closely enough at the email address and notice that the organization name is different by one letter?”
     

    According to the 2016 Verizon Data Breach Report, 30% of phishing messages were opened by the target across all campaigns and 12% went on to click on the attachment or link.

    Phishing email attacks directed at your company through your team range from very obvious to extremely believable. Some attempts are sent widely and are looking for just one person to click, while others are extremely targeted and deliberate. In either case, it is vital that each employee takes enough time to realize that the email request is unusual. Perhaps there are strange typos in the request or it is odd the CFO is emailing while on vacation. That moment your employees take to pause and decide whether to click on the link/attachment could mean the difference between experiencing an event or not.

    So how do you create and cultivate this type of thought process in your workforce? Lots of education and awareness efforts. This goes beyond just an annual in-service training on HIPAA. It may include education sessions, emails with tips and tricks, posters describing the risk, and also exercises to test your workforce against phishing and security exploits. It also takes leadership embracing security as a strategic imperative and leading the organization to take it seriously. Once you have these efforts in place, you can create culture change to build and maintain an environment where an employee is not embarrassed to check with the CFO’s office to see if they really did send an email from Bora Bora.
  1. Plan: Implement a Disaster Recovery and Incident Response Plan 
    Through the years, disaster recovery plans have been the usual response. Mostly, the emphasis has been on recovering data after a non-security IT event, often discussed in context of a fire, power loss, or hardware failure. Increasingly, cyber-attacks are creeping into the forefront of planning efforts. The challenge with cyber-events is that they are murkier to understand – and harder for leadership – to assist with.

    It’s easier to understand the concept of a fire destroying your server room and the plan entailing acquiring new equipment, recovering data from backup, restoring operations, having good downtime procedures, and communicating the restoration efforts along the way. What is much more challenging is if the event begins with a suspicion by employees, customers, or vendors who believe their data has been stolen without any conclusive information that your company is the originating point of the data loss. How do you take action if you know very little about the situation? What do you communicate if you are not sure what to say? It is this level of uncertainty that makes it so difficult. Do you have a plan in place for how to respond to an incident? Here are some questions to consider:

    1. How will we communicate internally with our staff about the incident?
    2. How will we communicate with our clients? Our patients? Our community?
    3. When should we call our insurance company? Our attorney?
    4. Is reception prepared to describe what is going on if someone visits our office?
    5. Do we have the technical expertise to diagnose the issue?
    6. Do we have set protocols in place for when to bring our systems off-line and are our downtime procedures ready to use?
    7. When the press gets wind of the situation, who will communicate with them and what will we share?
    8. If our telephone system and network is taken offline, how we will we communicate with our leadership team and workforce?

    By starting to ask these questions, you can ascertain how ready you may, or may not be, for a cyber-attack when it comes.
     
  2. Practice: Prepare your team with Table Top Exercises  
    Given the complexity and diversity of the threats people are encountering today, no single written plan can account for all of the possible combinations of cyber-attacks. A plan can give guidance, set communication protocols, and structure your approach to your response. But by conducting exercises against hypothetical situations, you can test your plan, identify weaknesses in the plan, and also provide your leadership team with insight and experience – before it counts.

    A table top exercise entails one team member (perhaps from IT or from an outside firm) coming up with a hypothetical situation and a series of facts and clues about the situation that are given to your leadership team over time. Your team then implements the existing plans to respond to the incident and make decisions. There are no right or wrong answers in this scenario. Rather, the goal is to practice the decision-making and response process to determine where improvements are needed.

    Maybe you run an exercise and realize that you have not communicated to your staff that no mention of the event should be shared by employees on social media. Maybe the exercise makes you realize that the network administrator who is on vacation at the time is the only one who knows how to log onto the firewall. You might identify specific gaps that are lacking in your cybersecurity coverage. There is much to learn that can help you prepare for the real thing.

As you know, there are many different threats and risks facing organizations. Some are from inside an organization while others come from outside. Simply throwing additional technology at the problem will not sufficiently address the risks. While your people continue to be one of the biggest threats, they can also be one of your biggest assets, in both preventing issues from occurring and then responding quickly and appropriately when they do. Remember focus on your People, Your Plan, and Your Practice.

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