Microsoft, Google Come to the Aid of Rural Hospitals – Security Boulevard

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Microsoft and Google will provide free or low-cost cybersecurity tools and services to rural hospitals in the United States at a time when health care facilities are coming under increasing attack by ransomware gangs and other threat groups.

For independent rural and critical access hospitals, Microsoft will provide grants and as much as 75% discounts on security products that are designed for smaller organizations and is providing its advanced security suite for free to larger hospitals that already use eligible products from the vendor. In addition, the enterprise software giant will offer free cybersecurity assessments and free training for frontline and IT staff to increase their resiliency to attacks.

Microsoft also will extend free security updates for Windows 10 for a year.

For its part, Google will give rural hospitals and non-profit organizations free endpoint security advice and some will get communication and collaboration tools at a discount, security support, and access to funding for migrating their software.

The company also plans to launch a pilot program for rural hospitals to develop packages of security capabilities that fit their needs.

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Public-Private Effort

The plans laid out by the two IT vendors come in collaboration with the Biden Administration and its National Security Council, the latest effort by the White House to help the health care sector better defend against the rising tide of cyberattacks.

The American Hospital Association (AHA) and the National Rural Health Association (NRHA) also were involved in the effort.

“Cybersecurity is a top priority for America’s hospitals and health systems,” AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack said in a statement. “It is also a shared responsibility. While hospitals and health systems have invested significant resources to guard against cyberattacks, they cannot do it alone, which is why these commitments from Microsoft and Google are important. It’s no secret that many rural hospitals across America are struggling as they serve as a health care lifeline in their communities so keeping them safe is essential.”

The White House estimates that there are 1,800 to 2,100 rural hospitals in the country that serve more than 60 million people.

Health Care in the Crosshairs

Ransomware attacks this year against Change Healthcare – a subsidiary of giant health insurance and services provider UnitedHealth Group – and Ascension crippled operations at hundreds of hospitals, health care facilities, and pharmacies, causing medical procedures to be postponed, patients having to be transferred to other hospitals, pharmacies unable to fill prescriptions, and payments to facilities to be delayed.

According to Anne Neuberger, deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technologies, cyberattacks against health care systems grew 130% year-over-year in 2023, with rural hospitals hit particularly hard given that they often are the sole source of care in their communities and lack trained cybersecurity staffs and modern defenses.

Cybersecurity company Emsisoft found that ransomware attacks against hospital systems – which collectively include 141 hospitals – jumped from 25 in 2022 to 46 a year later, with at least 32 of those incidents resulting in protected health data being stolen.

“Ransomware is without question a risk-to-life threat,” the company wrote. “In medical emergencies, every second counts. If access to treatment is delayed because the ambulances need to be rerouted from ransomed hospitals, bad outcomes become more likely. Patients may die or be left with permanent disabilities that could have been avoided with speedier treatment.

Health care facilities are becoming more frequent targets not only because of the massive amounts of sensitive personal data they hold but also because of the large numbers of connected devices they use and the reputation they have for weak cybersecurity.

Rural Hospitals are Particularly Vulnerable

“Rural hospitals face a unique challenge in cybersecurity, balancing limited resources with the increasing sophistication of cyberthreats, which puts patient data and critical healthcare infrastructure at risk,” NRHA CEO Alan Morgan said in a statement.

According to Microsoft, the services aimed at rural hospitals is the latest effort by the company to improve health for those living in rural areas in the United States and elsewhere. The vendor’s AI for Health program works with an array of global health non-profits, researchers, and organizations on telemedicine and decision making by clinics.

In addition, Microsoft said it is working to bring AI-based offerings to rural hospitals.

“Healthcare should be available no matter where you call home, and the rise in cyberattacks threatens the viability of rural hospitals and impact communities across the U.S.,” Justin Spelhaug, corporate vice president for Microsoft Philanthropies, said in a statement. “Microsoft is committed to delivering vital technology security and support at a time when these rural hospitals need them most.”

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