How U.S. health care providers deal with hundreds of data breaches every year

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

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In October 2020, the computers at the University of Vermont Medical Center, which serves around a million people in the region, were not turning on. Staff could not access patient files, like treatment history and test results.

Hackers had encrypted the hospital’s data and demanded the hospital contact them. The hospital called the FBI and shut down their IT network to prevent the damage from spreading. In the meantime, providing care became a major challenge, said neurologist Kaley Kinnamon.

“It was probably (the) most stressful time period I’ve ever had in my life,” she said. “It was really hard because you knew that you weren’t providing the best care that’s available. You didn’t have nearly as much time [with patients] because you were spending so much time doing administrative tasks that are usually managed by the computers.”

She said the staff wrote down notes by hand. That made patient visits longer and created as many as 50 pages of records per patient per day.

“Doctors notoriously have bad handwriting, so it actually made communication much more difficult.”

They had to walk to the lab to get lab results, which meant the results came back slower. In some cases, doctors rely on quick test results to decide what to give a patient, and now they had to do whatever measurements they could by the bedside.

Stephen Leffler, president and CEO of the hospital, told Congress in September 2023 that the attack did not affect patient information, but infected thousands of servers and computers at the hospital. The state government sent a National Guard cybersecurity team to help scan computers for malware.

“The cyber attack was much harder than the pandemic by far,” Leffler said in his testimony.

By and large the hospital and clinics kept running, albeit with some tweaks.

“Early in the cyberattack, the first two days, we didn’t have a phone system because our phone is on the internet. We literally went to Best Buy and bought every walkie-talkie they had,” Leffler said.

  • February 5, 2024
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