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A pharmacist wearing glasses is looking at a touch screen while practicing cybersecurity

Cybersecurity for Pharmacists

Pharmacists are entrusted with sensitive patient data on a daily basis. With the rise of telemedicine and online prescription services, pharmacists are now more vulnerable than ever to cyber threats – and threat actors have more incentive than ever to level these attacks. In our digital world, the importance of cybersecurity cannot be overstated. 

In this article, we explore the key cybersecurity challenges faced by pharmacists and discuss effective strategies to mitigate these risks. Training self and staff in cybersecurity best practices, and staying vigilant, is key to staying ahead of ever-evolving cyber threats.

Cybersecurity as an Integral Part of Pharmacy Practice

As covered entities under HIPAA, pharmacists are aware of their duty to protect their patients’ private information and maintain the integrity of their systems. Each pharmacist has an individual responsibility, even those in hospitals or corporate settings where dedicated IT departments manage, implement, and troubleshoot cybersecurity protocols.

Consequences can be severe and may take years to recover from. At the most acute level, an attack can prevent pharmacists from providing essential services to patients. 

A pharmacy data breach puts individuals at risk of identity theft and financial fraud – for an undefined period of time, possibly years – and it undermines the trust patients have in their pharmacists. Not only does it harm the reputation of the individual practice, it erodes the integrity of the pharmaceutical industry as a whole. 

To protect patient data and maintain public trust, pharmacists must prioritize cybersecurity as an integral part of their practice.

Common Vulnerabilities in the Pharmaceutical Industry

To effectively defend against attacks, pharmacists must first understand the common vulnerabilities in the pharmaceutical industry. 

  • Lack of employee training and awareness regarding cybersecurity. Many pharmacists and pharmacy staff may not be adequately educated about the risks and best practices for protecting sensitive information. This knowledge gap can leave pharmacies susceptible to social engineering attacks and other forms of cyber exploitation.
  • Weak password policies and encryption methods. Weak or easily guessable passwords provide a gateway for cybercriminals to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data. Outdated software and poor patch management practices can leave systems exposed to known vulnerabilities, making them an easy target for attackers.

Types of Cybersecurity Threats Faced by Pharmacists

Some types of threats are commonly leveled at pharmacies, such as phishing and ransomware.

Phishing attacks

One common threat is phishing, an attempt to deceive pharmacists into revealing sensitive information such as login credentials or financial info. These attacks often come in the form of email or websites that appear legitimate. For example, a seemingly innocuous email arrives, saying one must update their password as part of a security upgrade. The URL directs the pharmacist to a website clone, where attempting to log in is actually just exposing the pharmacist’s login credentials to the criminal. 

One reason phishing attacks like these are so common is because it exploits typical human behavior, such as the tendency to reuse passwords across multiple sites; for the criminal, successfully getting access to one site often means access to many others. Or, the information gathered at one site can be used to design new attacks against the victim.

Ransomware and malware

Another significant threat is ransomware, a type of malicious software that encrypts critical data and extorts a ransom from the victim to restore access. Ransomware attacks can cause significant disruption to pharmacy operations and compromise patient data if recent offline backups are not in place. 

Paying the ransom likely does not help:

  • There’s no guarantee of regaining access.
  • The computer(s) will still be infected.
  • Criminals can still have access to files, which they may threaten to publish.
  • People who pay are more likely to get targeted in the future.

What’s malware?

Malware is malicious software designed to disrupt, steal data, or gain control over a target system for various malicious purposes. Malware can:

  • Cause a device to become locked or unusable (“bricked”)
  • Replicate itself and spreading from one computer to another in order to corrupt or delete files, disrupt operations, or consume resources to cause slowdowns or crashes
  • Steal personal or financial information, track user activity, or obtain credentials, and transmit it back to the attacker
  • Steals intellectual property, such as research or development data
  • Take control of a system, leaving it open for future unauthorized access or enslaving it as a bot in a botnet to carry out attacks on other systems

Ransomware is a type of malware. Malware gets installed on pharmacy systems through any number of vulnerabilities

  • Through phishing emails sent to pharmacy staff: It only requires one unsuspecting user to click a malicious link or open an attachment.
  • Exploiting a security weakness in the pharmacy’s computer systems or networks, gaining unauthorized access: They may exploit outdated software, weak passwords, unpatched vulnerabilities, or misconfigured network settings to gain a foothold in the pharmacy’s infrastructure.
  • Running a watering hole attack: In some cases, attackers may compromise legitimate websites frequently visited by pharmacy staff, often related to healthcare or pharmaceuticals. By injecting malicious code into these sites, they can infect site visitors’ devices. Whether the site is accessed from pharmacy computers or pharmacists’ personal devices, it becomes possible for the criminal or code to gain access to the pharmacy’s network.

Cybersecurity Best Practices

Good cybersecurity posture

Cyberthreats can be managed by understanding the proper stance with which to approach all communications. A proactive posture includes simple habits, like hovering over a link before clicking on it to see if it’s legitimate. Others require good judgment and careful reading to spot things like unfamiliar greetings, suspicious email signatures, and bad grammar or spelling mistakes. 

Best practices also include being aware of social engineering tactics, for example, being wary of urgent requests for sensitive information (whether the demand comes from an email or over the phone). 

Most importantly, pharmacists and pharmacy staff should practice good cybersecurity hygiene in their day-to-day, including on their personal devices:

  1. Use complex passwords and multi-factor authentication.
  2. Encrypt sensitive data both at rest and in transit.
  3. Implement robust firewall and antivirus solutions.
  4. Regularly update software and apply security patches.
  5. Regularly back up critical data and store it offline.
  6. Access sensitive systems and data only from designated devices.
  7. Do regular security checkups.

At the administrative level

Regular training sessions and ongoing education can help reinforce good cybersecurity habits among staff and keep them informed about the latest threats and countermeasures.

Collaborating with cybersecurity experts and organizations can also provide valuable insights and guidance to pharmacists. By engaging with industry professionals, pharmacies can stay updated on the latest security trends and receive tailored advice to enhance their cybersecurity measures.

Lastly, compliance with industry regulations and standards is essential for pharmacists to prevent data breaches. Adhering to regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) ensures that pharmacies are implementing the necessary safeguards to protect patient information. Compliance with industry standards such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) can also help pharmacies secure their payment processing systems and prevent unauthorized access to financial data.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework provides a comprehensive set of guidelines and best practices that pharmacists can use to assess and improve their cybersecurity posture.