HealthManagement, Volume 16 - Issue 3, 2016


In 2013, the Washington Post (among other news outlets) ‏reported that Vice President Dick Cheney’s cardiac ‏pacemaker had its wireless capabilities disabled when ‏implanted in 2007 to eliminate any potential cyberintrusion ‏threat (Peterson, 2013). This old headline, with the more ‏recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cybersecurity ‏alert that the Hospira Symbiq Infusion System was ‏hacked in 2015 (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2015), ‏has many hospital leaders wondering whether they have the ‏risk of medical device cyberhacking under control. General ‏consensus is they don’t.


Many information technology (IT) leaders certainly have many ‏cybersecurity risks under control: passwords are required, ‏servers are secured behind locked ‏doors, policy has been established ‏if any protected health information ‏is sent to a wrong e-mail address ‏or hacked. However, these practices ‏have largely been applied to ‏network infrastructure and the electronic ‏health record (EHR). A medical ‏device, such as a vital signs monitor ‏or an infusion pump, is a cybersecurity ‏threat vector that probably ‏has not been subjected to the same ‏risk-mitigation scrutiny.


To start addressing these issues, ‏FDA hosted a public workshop ‏January 20 and 21, 2016, called “Moving Forward: Collaborative ‏Approaches to Medical Device Cybersecurity” (U.S. Food and ‏Drug Administration, 2016). The FDA, in collaboration with ‏the National Health Information Sharing Analysis Centre, the ‏U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the ‏Department of Homeland Security, brought together diverse ‏stakeholders to discuss complex challenges in medical device ‏cybersecurity that affect the medical device ecosystem. ‏


Know Where the Threats Lurk


As we know, medical devices are no longer just machines ‏attached to or used by the patient. They are often connected ‏to the EHR—either hardwired or wirelessly. A typical patient ‏in a critical care unit could easily be connected to ten or more ‏networked devices. While the information on the medical ‏device may not be useful to a hacker, the medical device can ‏be used as a conduit for accessing patient information in the ‏EHR, like home address and social security number, which ‏can be used to perpetrate identity theft or real theft in the ‏patient’s home while the patient is hospitalised. Potential ‏threats in medical devices include the physiologic monitor ‏that runs on an outdated operating system, the ventilator with ‏a USB port, and usernames and passwords for the vendor’s ‏field service engineers and in-house technicians that are ‏hard-coded. Other industries largely solved these types of ‏issues years ago.


As a further example, in-house biomedical engineering ‏technicians and vendor field-service engineers typically have ‏administrative rights to access performance ‏records and to apply service ‏diagnostics. These are typically not ‏a managed credential and at many ‏hospitals are the same for everyone ‏with this level of access to the device. ‏What happens if a technician or field service ‏engineer leaves the hospital or ‏the vendor? The password leaves with ‏the person, with no hospital policy ‏or procedure to update the access ‏codes. In its 2015 Cybersecurity ‏Survey, the Healthcare Information ‏and Management Systems Society ‏(HIMSS) noted that user-access control ‏security solutions were implemented in just 55 ‏percent of responding hospitals and mobile device management ‏tools and that access control lists were implemented ‏in only 50 percent of respondents (Healthcare Information ‏and Management Systems Society, 2015).


Also, at many hospitals, no clinical engineering or IT staff ‏can tell you which medical devices connect to the EHR, how ‏they connect, or what version of operating software is running ‏on each device. Often, basic security information is nowhere ‏to be found regarding medical devices used in patient care. ‏


What to do


  • Include clinical engineering, IT, and risk management ‏staff ‏when creating cybersecurity policies and procedures;
  • Proactively assess medical device cybersecurity risks. Working with manufacturers as appropriate;
  • Keep up with the latest updates and patches for operating ‏systems and anti-malware software;
  • Limit network access to medical devices through the ‏use of a firewall or virtual LAN;
  • Audit the log-in process to all medical devices to ensure ‏that an access-control method is being followed;
  • Set up a process to monitor and report on cybersecurity ‏threats and events.


Include the Right Stakeholders to Create Policies and Procedures


In its Top 10 Health Technology Hazards for 2015, ECRI Institute ‏recommended that a hospital or health system clinical engineering, ‏risk management, and IT departments jointly take these ‏steps to mitigate cybersecurity threats. Also, medical device ‏security should be thoroughly vetted during the purchasing ‏process of all medical devices and equipment, with a team ‏that includes clinical engineering, IT, and risk management ‏personnel to assess what the vendor has done regarding ‏design and policies for patch and update management. One ‏resource to aid in this process is the Manufacturer Disclosure ‏Statement for Medical Device Security questionnaire developed ‏by HIMSS and the American College of Clinical Engineering, and ‏then standardised during a joint effort between HIMSS and ‏the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. It provides ‏medical device manufacturers with a means for disclosing ‏to healthcare providers the security-related features of the ‏medical devices they manufacture.


Peterson A (2013) Yes – Terrorists Could Have Hacked ‏Dick Cheney’s Heart. Washington Post, 21 October. ‏[Accessed July 20 2016] Available from https://www. ‏ yes-terrorists-could-have-hacked-dick-cheneys-heart/


U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2015) Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities of Hospira Symbiq Infusion System: FDA Safety Communication. [Accessed July 20 2016] Available from


U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2016) Public Workshop - Moving Forward: Collaborative Approaches to Medical Device Cybersecurity, January 20-21, 2016. [Accessed July 20 2016] Available from


Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (2015) 2015 HIMSS Cybersecurity Survey [Accessed July 20, 2016]. Available from