The veterinary business is relying more on digital technology with each passing day. Clinics seeking to digitize their operations must carefully consider the role that cybersecurity plays in this industry, lest they suffer from a catastrophic data breach. From preserving patient data to ensuring operational continuity, here’s why cybersecurity matters in the veterinary business.
Cybersecurity: an Underappreciated Business Сonstituent
Veterinary professionals must understand that cybersecurity cannot be ignored. Clinics must now manage sensitive client data stored on digital servers that intruders are eager to access. Critical systems that ensure optimal patient outcomes can quickly be hijacked if they are not adequately protected. Cybersecurity has become an underappreciated business constituent in the veterinary industry, and practitioners must ensure that they are familiar with the best security practices known today.
When veterinary clinics fail to safeguard their data, they may succumb to a breach that divulges incredibly sensitive client information to the world. Client names and their home addresses could be leaked online, and sensitive patient medical or prescription information could be revealed to hackers. In the worst-case scenarios, veterinary clinics that fail to implement cybersecurity standards could be robbed of incredibly important client credit card or banking information. Clinics operating within the jurisdiction of the American CCPA or European GDPR may soon face legal obligations to protect such personal identifiable information.
Practices seeking to avoid exposure to legal jeopardy must become cautious stewards of client information. Veterinary professionals should move quickly to respond to data breaches, and practitioners should have plans in place for reassuring clients that their information is protected in the event of a breach.
Types of Cybersecurity Threats in Veterinary Practices
Not all cybersecurity threats are equal in magnitude – some aim to temporarily shut down your system, whereas others stealthily seek sensitive client data. At times, attackers may simply be aiming to extract a “ransom payment” from veterinary clinics that could appear in the form of requiring payment to fix a computer problem or other similar scams. Practice owners should take steps to mitigate their exposure to cyber risks by familiarizing themselves with common data breach methods and how to best respond to them:
- Phishing emails are the simplest and most effective method of breaching a secure network. These spam emails or text messages trick unwitting employees into clicking harmful links or divulging crucial information such as passwords or access codes. Hackers can use this method to gain access to employee email accounts, allowing them to send fake invoices to clients for illicit financial gain.
- Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks can brute force their way into a secure network by spamming it with a massive number of requests. Rather than making off with data, DDoS attacks can shut down your veterinary network by flooding it with so much traffic that critical systems cannot function.
- Ransomware involves the development of malware that locks you out of your veterinary system until a ransom is paid to regain access to your own digital operations. Criminals who are preventing you from accessing client files or company systems may demand exorbitant ransoms before relinquishing control over your digital infrastructure. Some hackers may employ malware to gain access to client information so that individual data can be held ransom.
Veterinary clinics and consolidators should begin by ensuring that all employees know how to recognize and avoid phishing scams and other cybersecurity threats. Phishing is a low-cost, low-effort way of breaching an otherwise secure network that was the most commonly used method by hackers in 2020, according to the FBI. The Bureau recommends that veterinary clinics remind employees to be cautious of links that are emailed to their work accounts. Clinics should provide professionals with access to the best veterinary apps instead of leaving them to conduct research online that could lead to the downloading of malware.
Veterinary professionals charged with hiring new technicians should also carefully evaluate resumes. Cyber criminals are well aware of the shortage of professionals in the veterinary industry, leading to disingenuous applications that carry ransomware instead of authentic credentials.
Protect your clinic from DDoS attacks by investing in robust digital infrastructure. Back up all client data regularly to secure servers, to ensure that you do not lose sensitive information in the event of a DDoS crash. Veterinary consolidators seeking to maintain continuity of operations should consider a security subscription that can divert traffic away from clinic websites when they may otherwise crash under the burden of a DDoS attack.
Understand that ransomware is a massive financial threat to veterinary clinics and consolidators. NVA, The largest private owner of freestanding veterinary hospitals in the United States, was beset by a ransomware attack that impacted hundreds of hospitals. This shows that big budgets don’t always produce better security outcomes if the best practices aren’t consistently implemented. The digital systems that hospitals relied on were severely affected. Veterinary consolidators should conduct regular sweeps of their networks to detect malware that could be rendering their systems vulnerable for future ransom efforts.
Finally, practice owners and veterinary consolidators seeking to minimize their exposure to risks should consult the National Cybersecurity Society’s website to assess their vulnerability. Practitioners are encouraged to recruit a dedicated IT professional and must proactively develop plans to quickly respond to cyber incidents. Private audits to assess the risks facing a hospital’s systems are increasingly common in the veterinary industry.
How Much Poor Cybersecurity May Cost Practice Owners and Consolidators
Consolidators seeking to increase post-acquisition revenue should recognize the financial threat posed by cybersecurity threats in veterinary medicine. Even the best veterinary practice can grind to a halt if professionals find themselves unable to access the digital systems they use to provide positive patient outcomes. Ransomware attacks can wreak havoc on connected systems even if they are dispersed across a wide geographic area. If even one system is compromised, it could trigger a cascading effect that impacts other hospitals miles away. In addition to data backups, veterinary hospitals must develop practical ways to ensure business continuity in the event of a digital catastrophe that deprives them of their data. Veterinary professionals must be capable of achieving their critical goals without immediate access to digital systems that could be easily compromised.
Veterinary clinics may be exposed to ransomware attacks regardless of whether their own systems are actually breached. A cloud service provider that a veterinary clinic relies on may be hacked or disabled, for instance, thereby depriving that clinic of the digital services it needs to succeed. Veterinary managers should consider regular backups even if they are confident in the quality of the cloud services provided by digital partners. Otherwise, daily operations may grind to a halt and employee frustration with frozen systems can skyrocket.
The valuation of a veterinary practice could be impacted by how seriously it takes cybersecurity. A veterinary hospital with lackluster cybersecurity standards is more vulnerable to data breaches that could generate costly lawsuits from angry clients. Practices and consolidators alike must take the dangers posed by the threat of litigation following a catastrophic data breach very seriously in order to prevent staggering financial losses. Even a successful defense could end up generating hefty legal fees.Hospitals that fail to make cybersecurity a priority may even see financial deals fall through due to insufficient data protection standards.
We’ve seen banks back out of agreements with veterinary hospitals due to cyber incidents right before the close of a deal
Clint Latham J.D., founder of Lucca Veterinary Data Security
The reputational damage of a serious cybersecurity incident may be difficult to recover from. Consolidators seeking to enhance the revenue of a recently acquired clinic should recognize the danger to a local brand which can occur if sensitive client data is lost to hackers. Clients seeking the best care for their pets may consider changing a clinic if their medical prescription data is compromised or services are delayed due to a security breach. The loss of personal financial data such as credit card numbers or bank account information will create both legal and marketing issues.
Essential Cybersecurity Advice for Practice Owners
Veterinary hospitals should strive to implement Data Loss Prevention (DLP) strategies as soon as possible. DLP refers to both tools and practices which will ensure that critical patient data is neither stolen nor lost in the event of a total system failure. It also entails educating veterinary professionals so that they can proactively secure data and avoid liability in the event of a harmful cyber incident.
There are four major reasons that data loss prevention must be considered a priority for veterinary clinics and consolidators:
- Reputation concerns. Clinics that fail to safeguard sensitive data will lose the trust of their clients, which in turn, leads to diminished revenue and a decline in the power of their brand.
- Financial losses stemming from cyber incidents. This refers to the loss of revenue that occurs when critical systems are down or being rebooted, as well as to the potential ransom a clinic must pay to hackers if their security is breached.
- Liability concerns for professionals and the company. Individual veterinary professionals who violate client/patient privacy laws could face legal jeopardy, a situation that can be particularly disastrous to smaller practices.Similarly, consolidators running a network of veterinary hospitals could face serious lawsuits in the event of a catastrophic systems failure that impacts clients across the country.
- Regulatory lawsuits from government authorities could shut down non-compliant practices. Whether a cyber incident is accidental or launched by a malicious third party, the loss of client data could run afoul of state or federal guidelines, threatening a practice’s ability to lawfully operate.
Veterinary consolidators should ensure that former employees of a recently acquired practice no longer have access to digital systems. Similarly, third-party contractors brought in to optimize a practice in the wake of an acquisition must be carefully vetted. Do not allow contractors to gain access to sensitive client data or the onsite digital servers that could prove essential to daily operations without first conducting a security check.
Smaller veterinary hospitals should consider investing in off-site data backups. Natural or manmade disasters can destroy the physical infrastructure of a veterinary hospital, but data can be salvaged if it is securely stored in the cloud. Disaster preparedness should include a data backup strategy to ensure patient information is not lost in the event of a calamity. By scheduling regular training sessions, practices can also guarantee that veterinary professionals can still achieve optimal patient outcomes in the immediate wake of a cyber incident. Taking five simple steps to protect your practice could ensure business continuity in the aftermath of a data breach or system crash.
Veterinary professionals may not always possess the digital expertise needed to ensure software is operating as it should. There are seven essential tips for implementing cybersecurity in veterinary clinics that may require investing in a dedicated IT professional who can educate other practitioners in the hospital. While all employees can be taught the importance of developing secure passwords, only cybersecurity experts are capable of patching software or maintaining a business-class firewall to shield client and patient data. The minor cost of employing a cybersecurity expert is far outweighed by the immense costs of data breaches, ransomware attacks, or the loss of valuable client data.
Avoiding Cyber Catastrophe
Veterinary hospitals may never be able to reboot systems without sacrificing the continuity of business, which is why avoiding cyber incidents in the first place is of the utmost importance. The reputational and financial damages that can be incurred due to a phishing scheme or DDoS attack can be avoided with proactive efforts to shield your systems from third-party attacks. Veterinary consolidators seeking to assess the valuation of a veterinary practice should pay careful attention to existing cybersecurity standards. Above all else, knowing why cybersecurity is important in today’s veterinary space must be a priority of every professional employed by a practice.
We wish to express our gratitude to our dear friend Clint Latham J.D., founder of Lucca Veterinary Data Security, for sharing his expert opinion on the cybersecurity in the veterinary domain.