MSSP’s Role in the Rural Hospital Healthcare Resource Grab

By Ben Denkers, Chief Innovation Officer, & Jaime Reynolds, Vice President Business Development & Strategy, CynergisTek

For years, financial shortfalls have threatened rural medical facilities with closures. A 2020 study from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform revealed that 40% of all rural hospitals were at immediate risk of closing even before the COVID-19 pandemic added to their woes. The University of North Carolina’s Center for Health Services Research reported the closure of 19 rural facilities in 2020, with two more closures in 2021;another has already shut down in the first half of this year.

Even one closure has serious consequences. Every time a rural hospital closes, people living nearby must travel an average of nearly 20 miles further to get the same health care services. Moreover, according to the Center for Health Services Research study “The Economic Effects of Rural Hospital Closures,” these closures often have disproportionately adverse local economic outcomes, decreasing local counties’ labor forces and populations.

Cyberthreats aren’t just big city problems anymore

Over the last two years, rural hospitals have faced financial pressures beyond funding gaps. Cyber incidents targeting healthcare organizations have become a regular occurrence, as ransomware attacks launched by international cybercriminals have caused major disruptions. According to a global survey of IT professionals, over one-third of health care organizations reported being hit by ransomware in 2020, and the sector experienced a 45% uptick in attacks since November 2020.

While large healthcare systems in urban settings might seem like better ransomware targets, rural healthcare providers face the same threats. Recent cyberattacks on rural healthcare facilities forced healthcare providers to fall back to paper, turning away patients until they restored or rebuilt their affected systems. In extreme cases, affected rural providers had to permanently cease operations.

Rural facilities have substantially fewer resources, tools, talent, and outsourcing options to protect themselves, or even stay vigilant against malicious threats. The stakes become higher when temporary or permanent closures force their emergency patients to be transported to far-flung facilities, putting their lives at even greater risk.

Fighting global threats on a rural budget

The pandemic has strained every healthcare system, forcing organizations to prioritize patient health despite growing shortages of healthcare workers and security resources. As a result, healthcare IT professionals have been operating their cybersecurity programs on shoestring budgets while struggling to stay ahead of ever-mounting cybersecurity threats.

Just as rural healthcare organizations have historically faced obstacles in attracting and retaining medical talent, implementing an optimal cybersecurity infrastructure can seem daunting in both challenges and costs. Most healthcare organizations, and particularly smaller rural ones, tend to defer cybersecurity investments whenever there’s a perception that diverting resources to information security will come at the expense of patient care. Yet in the modern era, cybersecurity and patient care are increasingly interrelated. If healthcare organizations don’t prioritize their cybersecurity infrastructure, the likelihood of attacks will continue to grow. Taking a proactive approach to the prevention of cyber incidents is far easier and more cost-effective than needing to apply security after an incident has occurred.

MSSPs to the rescue

Managed security service providers (MSSPs) offer rural hospitals a viable alternative to the traditional hunt for local healthcare cybersecurity talent– and subsequent worrying about retention and training. Thanks to a pay-as-you-go outsourcing model, under-resourced healthcare organizations can use MSSPs to get the benefits of industry expertise without the administrative or monetary challenges of hiring a full in-house team.

MSSPs offer the following benefits to organizations:

  • Easy extensions of your team. Assuming the longstanding IT workforce shortage continues, and threats keep growing each year, organizations can expect that protecting themselves against cyberattacks will become increasingly difficult. By partnering with an MSSP, any organization can add skilled personnel as needed, rather than investing money, time, and additional resources to build a full in-house team.
  • Big picture security assessments. Unlike employees who may have been trained on small-scale networks, MSSPs can conduct a detailed security assessment of any organization’s network, no matter the scale. With appropriate knowledge of security vulnerabilities, MSSPs can identify and close risk gaps.
  • Threat detection and rapid response. Around the clock threat detection is essential to any organization’s cybersecurity infrastructure. MSSPs democratize threat intelligence, possessing the scale to monitor and respond to attacks in a timely manner – protection that can help organizations avoid significant negative consequences.
  • Monitoring and management. By continually reviewing and scrutinizing healthcare organizations’ cybersecurity programs, MSSPs can support internal functional requirements including monitoring and management. This can help organizations provide regulatory officials with information during cybersecurity program auditing, breach, and/or complaint situations.

Particularly for rural healthcare systems that may have previously struggled to establish good cybersecurity practices, MSSPs can be cost-effective catalysts for changing outmoded internal dialogues. Small IT teams will benefit from year-round and round-the-clock monitoring, pricing models that scale to any organization size and, unlike many solutions today, a totally predictable long-term total cost of ownership. MSSP offerings can also be customized, giving rural hospitals the comfort of having skilled, dedicated people to meet their cybersecurity needs while preserving resources for their number one priority: patients.

At a moment in cybersecurity history where threats are overwhelming and both dollars and lives are at stake, MSSPs provide small organizations with access to the same levels of protection that large enterprises have historically enjoyed. These critical access hospitals, which are not cyber experts, need to be able to focus on providing quality patient care; this is where MSSPs can help. They are the most reasonable way for cash-strapped rural healthcare providers to arm themselves with the tools and expertise required to stand tall against today’s full threat landscape without compromising data security or patient safety.

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