Networking News

Using Firewalls to Strengthen Healthcare Network Security

Firewalls are the first line of defense for every healthcare network and protects EHRs and protected health information (PHI) from malware and other cyber attacks.

By Elizabeth O'Dowd

Firewalls are the the first line of defense for securing healthcare network against the public internet. Firewalls are digital walls that stand between protected health data and potentially dangerous malware.

Firewalls secure healthcare networks

Following an established set of rules, firewalls actively monitor incoming and outgoing traffic. In doing so, a firewall blocks the secure network from the internet and only allows pre-cleared data to pass through.

Organizations can block access from inside the network to public websites they deem harmful or deny access to the network based on specifically outlined credentials. Firewalls can be adjusted to allow remote access as needed and can be included in mobility or virtualization solutions.

Firewalls play an essential in HIPAA compliance and act as the first line of defense against malicious attacks and unauthorized access. The SANS Institute notes that medical records are highly valued by identity thieves because of the personal patient information they contain, a reality that makes medical institutions valuable targets for hackers looking to sell identities on the black market.  

Firewalls typically protect the network from malware, specifically viruses and worms along with phishing tools and rootkits: They recognize malware and block a website, user, or file from being accessed by a user from within the network.

Enterprise-level firewalls come in two forms: network firewalls and host-based firewalls. Network firewalls can be software running on a client or a separate hardware appliance. Network firewalls filter traffic between the secure network and public internet. Host-based firewalls are software appliances on a server that control network traffic from a single point.

Host-based firewalls may be a better option for organizations with remote network access because the firewall lives on the server and permissions won’t need to be modified as drastically to allow remote access.

While denying unfamiliar traffic to the healthcare network is usually a good thing, it’s important to properly monitor traffic to be sure grant appropriate and necessary access. Firewalls with security settings that are too high can limit legitimate traffic causing productivity delays and data to be missed by the end-user.

Developers of malware has only become more clever over the years, which means that firewalls need to act as more than just a barrier. Firewalls need to be proactive in detecting malware, especially those threats that are more cleverly disguised.

Healthcare firewalls have to cover more ground than firewalls in other industries because of the value of EHRs and clinical data, and the numerous ways hackers can gain unauthorized access to the network.

Healthcare organizations have more than just computers and smartphones accessing the network. Connected medical devices are Wi-Fi enabled and use the network to collect patient data and monitor health.

While hackers may not get the information they’re looking for directly from connected medical devices, they can use these devices as a means to freely access the entire network. Medical devices are often overlooked as a cybersecurity vector because they may lack traditional interfaces associated with accessing the network.

Devices used in home care and patient wearable devices can also represent a threat to traditional firewalls. These Wi-Fi-enabled devices can be hacked in a similar way to connected medical devices, but they have remote network access which makes them more vulnerable to cyberattack.

With remote network access becoming more common with telecommuting and wearables, coordinating virtual private networks (VPNs) with the firewall is an important step. Remote access makes the network more vulnerable, but tightening security too much can block valuable data from getting through or cause operability problems for users and ultimately negate the convenience of remote access.

Firewalls are one of the oldest and most consistent building blocks of secure IT infrastructure. Firewalls deny access to most malware intending to harm an organization’s network and act as the foundation for all other network security.

A solid firewall protects the network from the most common blunt attacks and provides IT departments with insight into the most common types of attacks the network is receiving in order to build up protection where it is needed.

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