Healthcare Software Development Exposes Security Risks

Many organizations are lax in protecting patient data during development and testing, finds Ponemon Institute study.

Nicole Lewis, Contributor

January 26, 2011

3 Min Read

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According to a survey of IT managers at health delivery organizations, 51% of respondents said they don't protect patient data used in software development and testing.

Released on Tuesday, the findings come at a time when the healthcare industry is transferring medical records from paper-based systems to digitized medical records, which calls for more development and testing of software in healthcare environments.

The report, "Health Data at Risk in Development: A Call for Data Masking," also revealed that lost patient information can go undetected. A full 78% of respondents said they are not confident or else are undecided as to whether their organization could even detect the theft or accidental loss of real data in development or testing.

Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute, said in a statement that the report is a wake-up call for the healthcare industry, where the average per-victim cost of a data loss is $294, which is 44% higher than the norm across all industries. "Healthcare organizations have achieved great success in safeguarding their data in production environments. Now it is time to act just as resolutely and systematically to protect patient confidentiality and privacy in non-production environments," Ponemon said.

The report relied on interviews with 450 IT professionals working at U.S. healthcare organizations. The survey was conducted by the Ponemon Institute and sponsored by Informatica Corporation, a data integration software company.

The survey found that breaches are commonplace, with 38% of respondents saying they have had a breach involving data in a development and test environment, and 12% saying they are unsure if they have had a breach or not.

Additionally, the consequences of a breach are high, with 59% of those experiencing breaches saying they consequently experienced disruption of operations, 56% faced regulatory action, and 36% suffered reputation loss.

The study found that outsourcing development and test activities and/or using cloud computing resources introduce additional risk factors, which often prevent healthcare organizations from turning to these potentially advantageous resources. Security concerns cause 40% not to outsource, while 19% are confident or very confident about security in a cloud environment.

The study also reported that the healthcare industry is disillusioned with data-protection goals. Meeting privacy and data protection requirements in the healthcare services industry is important to 74%, but only 35% say they believe their company is successful in achieving this goal.

With this minority believing their organization is successful at protecting patient privacy in development and test environments, Ponemon Institute recommends that healthcare organizations centralize executive oversight, creating a single point of executive-level responsibility, coupled with policies and procedures for safeguarding the organization's real data in non-production environments.

The organization also says health delivery organizations should implement data-masking technology by investing in key technologies, including tools that transform or mask sensitive or confidential data without diminishing the value of the data necessary for successful testing and development.

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