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Inside Dentistry
July 2024
Volume 20, Issue 7

Guarding Your Practice Against Cyberattacks

A practical guide

Tom Terronez

Today, dentistry is almost 100% reliant on technology. This technology provides so many benefits that it is sometimes easy to forget that it also presents some significant risks-the largest of which are those to cybersecurity. When I started in dental IT more than 20 years ago, security wasn't even a thought. However, now it is a core aspect that only continues to grow in importance. To protect the safety of your patients and practice, it is important to understand the current state of potential threats, as well as the vulnerabilities specific to dental practices, and implement practical strategies to effectively mitigate cybersecurity risks.

The Current Cybersecurity Threat Landscape

Cyberattacks directed at dental and dental specialty practices are becoming more complex and widespread. The current landscape is fraught with many threats, including the following:

Ransomware incidents. Ransomware attacks continue to pose a significant danger. Cybercriminals target healthcare organizations, including dental practices, by encrypting vital data and demanding substantial ransoms for decryption keys. These attacks can disrupt services, compromise patient privacy, and lead to financial harm.

Data breaches. The unauthorized access or theft of patient data presents a major risk for dental practices. Patient records contain sensitive information, such as medical histories, insurance details, and personal identifiers, which makes them attractive targets for cybercriminals who are looking to exploit or profit from this data.

Phishing and social engineering attempts. Cybercriminals frequently use phishing emails and social manipulation techniques to trick unsuspecting employees into sharing confidential information or installing malicious software on their computers. These methods take advantage of human weaknesses to circumvent conventional cybersecurity measures.

Supply chain attacks. Dental practices, especially those that depend on third-party vendors, face the risk of supply chain attacks. By compromising vendor systems to breach practices' networks, hackers leverage trusted connections to gain unauthorized entry.

Why Dental Practices Are Vulnerable Targets

Private dental clinics and specialized practices are attractive targets for cyber assaults. Among other factors, this can be attributed to various vulnerabilities that may be inherent in their operations, including the following:

On-site servers. Many dental practices still utilize on-site servers for their practice management software and imaging tools. If these servers are not properly secured, they become appealing entry points for cyber intruders.

Software weaknesses. Many of the practice management and imaging software applications used in dental settings present vulnerabilities that stem from inadequate coding practices. Oftentimes, these programs require elevated permissions for devices, which expands the attack surface and makes them more susceptible to exploitation.

Reliance on smaller IT service providers. A significant portion of the dental industry depends on smaller IT service providers for technical assistance. Although these service providers can offer customized assistance, they may lack the necessary resources and expertise to effectively implement strong cybersecurity measures, leaving practices vulnerable to cyber threats.

Insufficient investment in cybersecurity.Despite the expanding threat landscape, a significant number of dental practices are hesitant to invest in comprehensive cybersecurity measures. Budget limitations and a lack of awareness of the potential risks are major contributors to this problem.

Inadequate cybersecurity training. The team members at dental practices often do not undergo regular cybersecurity training, which leaves them ill-prepared to identify and efficiently respond to threats. In particular, this lack of training raises the chances that phishing attacks and other forms of social engineering will be successful.

Underreporting cyberattacks. Many cybersecurity incidents within dental practices go unreported, either due to concerns about damaging their reputation or a lack of understanding regarding reporting procedures. This reluctance to report incidents makes it challenging for dental IT security professionals to evaluate the true scope of the issue and implement appropriate remedial actions.

Recommendations to Address Cybersecurity Risks

To strengthen their defenses against cybersecurity threats and reduce the risk of cyberattacks, dental practices and specialty clinics should take a proactive stance. If practice management systems and imaging platforms are operating from local servers that are inadequately protected, consider transitioning them to cloud-based solutions. Cloud providers typically have robust cybersecurity measures in place, which can ease some data protection responsibilities for practices. Work closely with your IT service provider to create a solid cybersecurity plan for your practice and implement practical strategies, including the following:

• Install a high-level firewall with advanced security features, such as intrusion detection/prevention, geo IP filtering, and content filtering.

• Create separate guest Wi-Fi networks to keep external users away from sensitive practice data.

• Use endpoint detection and response tools that monitor unusual activities as well as detect malware.

• Regularly back up your data locally and in the cloud for quick recovery in case of a cybersecurity incident.

• Stay up to date with system updates and patches for servers and workstations to fix any known vulnerabilities.

• Remove all third-party remote access except for what your IT provider uses.

• Purchase cybersecurity insurance to help cover financial losses if there's a security breach.

If your current IT provider doesn't have the expertise or resources to provide strong cybersecurity measures, think about teaming up with a specialized cybersecurity firm. Once you have a solid cybersecurity plan in place, boost your practice's cybersecurity stance by implementing strict internal IT policies, including the following:

• Require multi-factor authentication whenever possible for added security.

• Promptly change the passwords for shared resources, such as wireless networks, when employees leave to prevent unauthorized access.

• Ensure that only essential staff members have direct access to servers to minimize the risk of unauthorized changes or security breaches.

• Require all employees to participate in annual cybersecurity training and testing to increase their awareness and readiness.

• Limit employee devices to the guest wireless network to reduce the chances of unauthorized entry into internal systems.

Practicing With Proper Protections

To safeguard dental practices from cybersecurity threats, a proactive and comprehensive approach is necessary. By understanding the current threats and addressing vulnerabilities, practices can strengthen their cybersecurity defenses and properly protect patient data. Collaboration among practice owners, IT professionals, and cybersecurity experts is essential to the ongoing development of strong defense mechanisms against evolving cybersecurity risks. When dental practices invest in cybersecurity measures and implement effective strategies, they can focus on delivering exemplary patient care and improving their businesses with the knowledge that their data are protected.


Tom Terronez is the chief executive officer of Medix Dental IT, a dental technology and support provider based in Davenport, Iowa, that has worked with more than 1,000 practices.

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