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Cybersecurity threats and your dental practice: What to know about protecting your office—and your patients

Jan. 22, 2024
Dental practices are increasingly in the crosshairs of sophisticated cyber threats. Here's what an industry expert says practices need to do to strengthen their defenses and protect their businesses and patients.

Dental practices, as well as other businesses and organizations in the dental industry, are increasingly finding themselves in the crosshairs of sophisticated cyber threats. From phishing attacks to ransomware incidents, dentistry is grappling with some unpleasant realities and a wave of challenges that demand a comprehensive and proactive approach to cybersecurity. 

Recent events, including the Henry Schein ransomware attack and others, underscore the urgency for dental practice leaders to fortify their defenses against evolving cyber adversaries. 

The pervasive threat of phishing attacks

Phishing attacks have emerged as the number one cause of data breaches across all sectors, and dental practices are not exempt from this peril. The Henry Schein ransomware attack serves as a stark eye-opener of the relentless nature and cruelty of attackers.

You might also be interested in: Henry Schein cyberattack: What to know

Despite the prevalence of phishing and other attacks, many dental practice leaders underestimate the importance of their business data to the hackers who trade in such commodities. As the threat landscape evolves, so must the strategies used to combat it. Traditional training methods, whether online or in-person, are proving inadequate in preparing dental practice employees for the constant barrage of phishing emails and open doors they encounter daily. 

To address this vulnerability, dental practices must go beyond the conventional and embrace advanced tools to fortify their cybersecurity defenses.

Dentistry: A prime target for cybercriminals

Dental practices and other businesses in the dental space (such as Aspen Dental) have become increasingly attractive targets for hackers. The wealth of information associated with patient care makes these practices prime targets for cybercriminals seeking to exploit vulnerabilities. Sector breaches account for a staggering 79% of reported breaches across all industries, highlighting the severity of the threat to patient privacy and the integrity of health-care operations.

The consequences of health-care breaches often extend beyond the immediate impact on operations. Practices failing to implement effective HIPAA compliance programs face significant fines, with the average fine in 2022 reaching $98,643. Small practices bore the brunt of these fines, constituting 65% of the fines issued in that year.

Ransomware, a particularly insidious form of malware that encrypts data and demands a ransom for decryption, has cast a looming shadow over the dental realm. The notorious BlackCat ransomware gang has gained notoriety for its relentless attacks on health-care entities, including dental practices. These attacks not only disrupt practice operations but also jeopardize the confidentiality of patient data.

The intersection of phishing attacks, breaches, and ransomware underscores the multifaceted nature of the cybersecurity threat landscape facing dental practices. Cybercriminals often assume that dental practices have less stringent security policies than other health-care entities, rendering them attractive targets. The cybersecurity disruption experienced by the Aspen Group underscored the vulnerability of dental practices to cyber threats, leading to temporary disruptions in practice operations and the compromise of patient data.

The myths of size: Smaller dental practices are not safer

It's a common misconception that only large dental practices and technology organizations are targeted by cybercriminals, but the reality is that even small practices are vulnuerable to cyber threats. In fact, cybercriminals often assume that smaller practices have less sophisticated security measures in place, making them easier targets. The truth is that the wealth of patient information makes all dental practices, regardless of size, appealing to hackers.

Recognizing potential vulnerability is the first step toward implementing effective cybersecurity measures. Practices must prioritize cybersecurity as an integral part of their operations, adopting measures such as regular training, updating software, and investing in advanced cybersecurity solutions.

Messaging cybersecurity: Empowering employees as the first line of defense

Establishing a culture of cybersecurity is a critical first step. Employees must be educated and empowered to understand the critical role they play as the first line of defense against threats, so regular communication and training are key components of fostering a cybersecurity-aware environment.

Dental practice leaders should communicate the significance of cybersecurity measures to their teams, emphasizing that every employee, from the office manager to those working chairside, is a vital part of the practice's defense against cyber threats. By instilling a sense of collective responsibility, practices can create a robust cybersecurity culture that helps protect every aspect of their organization.

Beyond traditional training: The role of anti-phishing solutions

Anti-phishing solutions are a crucial starting point in bolstering dental office cybersecurity defenses. These technologies empower administrators to launch campaigns of realistic phishing emails, for example, directly into employees' inboxes. These simulated and safe emails serve as a litmus test to help practice leaders evaluate employees' ability to recognize common threats found in real phishing emails. Those who inadvertently "click the link" are provided with immediate just-in-time training, educating them on the dangers of phishing emails and the potential catastrophic effects on the organization.

Running routine phishing simulations is not just a best practice; it’s an essential component of any effective security awareness program. Dental practices that integrate simulated phishing attempts into their training protocols stand to decrease their susceptibility rates by as much as 5%.

Why does this matter? In 2021, phishing emerged as the most common type of cybercrime, affecting millions of people. According to the 2022 Cost of a Data Breach report by IBM and the Ponemon Institute, the average data breach cost in 2022 was $4.35 million, marking a 2.6% rise from the previous year's amount. These numbers aren’t statistics; they underscore the tangible threat that cybercrime poses to dental practices. And these figures are only going to rise. 

Looking forward: Fortifying the future of dental practices

The implications of these cybersecurity challenges are profound. The trust patients place in dental practices to safeguard their sensitive information is at stake, and the financial implications of data breaches and HIPAA fines can be significant. 

As the dental industry evolves, practices of all sizes must recognize the vulnerabilities inherent in the industry and take proactive steps to address them. In the face of an ever-changing cybersecurity landscape, the resilience of dental practices will be defined by their commitment to adopting best practices, leveraging advanced technologies, and fostering a culture of cybersecurity awareness among their teams.

With the reality that even small dental practices are not immune to cyber threats, it’s even more critical to strengthen security defenses. Every dental practice should be equipped with the knowledge and tools to protect the sensitive information entrusted to them. By doing so, dental practices can secure their future in an increasingly digitized and targeted environment, ensuring the continuity of care for their patients while safeguarding the integrity of their operations.

David Corlette is the vice president of product management at VIPRE Security Group. He works with customers and partners to design and build best-of-breed IT security solutions. He has broad experience in advanced threat, SIEM, networking, cloud services, security standardization, open source, agile development, and technology policy. David can be reached online at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidcorlette/ and at https://vipre.com/.

About the Author

David Corlette

David Corlette is the vice president of product management at VIPRE Security Group. He works with customers and partners to design and build best-of-breed IT security solutions. He has broad experience in advanced threat, SIEM, networking, cloud services, security standardization, open source, agile development, and technology policy. David can be reached online at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidcorlette/ and at https://vipre.com/.