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Why Cybersecurity is Important for Biomedical Engineers

Biomedical engineers are the unseen force behind some of modern medicine's greatest achievements. Biomedical engineers are at the forefront of exciting research and they are staples of day-to-day hospital operations. Their responsibilities are wide-ranging and they touch many aspects of modern healthcare, from medical imaging to bionanotechnology.

However, despite their broad scope of responsibilities and research, seldom associated with biomedical engineers is the concept of cybersecurity. While biomedical engineering and cybersecurity are often regarded as fields apart from one another, they're inextricably tied in the context of a modern medical center. 

As connected medical devices become more important to modern healthcare, biomedical engineers have a clear responsibility to keep cybersecurity in mind, from procurement and implementation to the regular monitoring and updating of the devices they use.

The sooner your hospital realizes the overlap between biomedical engineering and cybersecurity, the sooner you can leverage the synergies between the departments.

What Is a Biomedical Engineering Team?

As the name suggests, biomedical engineers solve problems by combining knowledge of biology, medicine, and engineering. On the research side, that means the design, development, and management of tools and equipment that improve healthcare processes. These include artificial organs, diagnostic machines, and advanced prosthetics. On the clinical side, that means that biomedical engineers are typically the first point of contact for educating other hospital staff on the purposes and functions of healthcare equipment.

Biomedical engineers are also usually the ones responsible for the management and maintenance of medical devices – including inventory management, performance management, quality assurance, and compliance. The biomedical engineering team keeps a hospital stocked with the medical devices needed to operate efficiently and ensures that hospital staff are taught how to properly use those devices.

In a modern hospital, where medical technology typically comes with some sort of digital interface, that often involves just as much responsibility over the use of software as it does over the use of hardware. As a result, the purview of biomedical responsibilities – particularly as they pertain to maintenance and management – continue to expand.

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With such an important and far-reaching mandate, it's no wonder that biomedical engineers are in high demand. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of biomedical engineers is projected to grow by 7% through 2026. This growth is driven primarily by healthcare’s increasing dependence on medical technologies – practically all of which require the expertise of biomedical engineers. As these technologies become more complex, the demand for more and more capable biomedical engineers will only grow.

What is Healthcare Cybersecurity?

Healthcare cybersecurity refers generally to the effort to defend a hospital's network against malfunction or malicious cyberattack. Why is cybersecurity important? Because of the increasingly digitized nature of modern business, across all industries. However, healthcare cybersecurity comes with several unique challenges that make it even more difficult and pressing. In fact, healthcare cybersecurity is so tricky that 94% of healthcare organizations have been the victim of a cyberattack at least once.

One reason why healthcare cybersecurity is unique is that, healthcare organizations face regulatory considerations that other industries do not. For example, in the U.S., HIPAA includes privacy regulations intended to protect patients' medical records and other sensitive personal health information. The burden of safeguarding that data falls on healthcare facilities, which face substantial legal penalties, lawsuits, and damage to their reputation if protected data is compromised. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act goes even further, increasing the potential legal liability for non-compliance to $250,000 per violation, and $1.5 million for repeated or uncorrected violations. Compliance with these regulatory standards are mandatory for operational continuity, profitability, and the protection of patient safety and privacy.

Second, in addition to privacy regulations, medical devices and software must be interoperable, meaning that they can securely and seamlessly exchange and use information with other authorized systems and technologies. Interoperability is not just important to intra-hospital operations, but also in communicating with other points of care in the healthcare ecosystem.

For example, if a hospital discharges a patient, the patient's primary care physician requires access to the medical records related to their recent stay. A hospital’s electronic health records (EHR) system must be able to communicate with the primary care physician's system to deliver the most up-to-date information on the patient. While the sharing of this information helps streamline healthcare processes, it also opens organizations to new cybersecurity vulnerabilities and potential vectors of attack.

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Moreover, the complexity of healthcare systems means that security tools built for general IT ecosystems found in other industries simply don't cut it. Like other industries, hospitals employ network access control (NAC) solutions, which identify and profile endpoints, enforce pre-defined group-based security policies, and enact isolation proceedings against potentially compromised segments of the network.

Unfortunately, healthcare networks often have a large number of devices connected via intermediaries or gateways. In this type of configuration, an NAC solution will only be able to identify and profile the gateway itself – even as it hosts a range of different devices each with different risk characteristics. In other words, the standard network security toolbox is altogether ill-suited to the task of protecting connected healthcare environments.

Finally, as healthcare devices and software become more complex and employ more specialized communication protocols, they become too unwieldy for non-purpose-specific cybersecurity tools. Even those solutions that examine beyond Layer 4 (the transmission of data between end systems or hosts) are often unable to meaningfully interpret the data flow between healthcare devices and software. Consequentially, these cybersecurity solutions are frequently ill-equipped to identify anomalous or problematic activity that could signal a malfunction or breach.

Think about it like this: network traffic is like a car on a highway. Inside the car are people traveling to their destination in order to perform a specific task. The people are constantly declaring who they are and what they intend to do when they get where they’re going. A good general cybersecurity solution is like a robotic inspector that automatically records and processes theses declarations. If the travelers declare themselves to be suspicious, they’re stopped and removed from the highway.

traffic image-1Here’s where it gets a little more complicated – the people in the cars might speak any of around 8000 different languages. Thankfully though, the vast majority of travelers speak one of a few dozen well-known languages. So, our friendly robotic inspector is taught those languages and left to rely on context clues and vehicular details to make sense of people speaking a language it does not understand.

Because malicious travelers are proportionally very rare and because most traffic is fully understood by the inspection regime, this system tends to be very effective. That is, it’s effective in a normal IT environment.

In healthcare however, those few dozen most commonly used languages are entirely different and the distribution of less common languages has a much longer tail. So if all we have to rely on is the same robot, speaking the same languages, the inspection regime all of the sudden looks quite ineffective.

That’s a big part of the challenge when it comes to healthcare cybersecurity.

Who’s In Charge?

Nominally, cybersecurity preparation is the domain of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) or Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) and their teams. While all cybersecurity planning and processes flow through these departments, cybersecurity strategy is a component of a hospital’s wider strategic planning and management that requires buy-in from stakeholders in multiple departments. This includes members of the information security team itself, the IT department, medical administrators, clinical operators, and the biomedical department. As such, it is always important for every department to be engaged in cybersecurity preparation on some level and for lines of communication to remain open.

Information security teams are responsible for reducing endpoint complexity and aligning each department in pursuing a holistic cybersecurity strategy. Of course, compliance with all regulatory requirements is a priority, but hospitals should aim to go above and beyond these standards in order to ensure continuity of network operations and improve quality of care.

To achieve their mission, CIOs and CISOs require organization-wide assistance, and biomedical engineers are uniquely positioned to help coordinate activity across departments. As the go-to department for connected medical device procurement, implementation, training and maintenance of connected medical devices, biomed offers a comprehensive view over the entire hospital ecosystem and an intimate knowledge of how each device fits into clinical operations.

In other words, biomed can serve as a bridge between clinical operations and healthcare technology management. This bridge is essential to breaking down communication barriers and improving cooperation across departments with different focus areas.

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Clinical operators are familiar with the day-to-day usage of connected medical devices. Information security teams are focused on a higher-level perspective of how those devices fit into the broader picture of network security. Members of one department seldom consider the goals and perspective of another. Biomedical engineers, however, sit in between; they help select the devices needed to support clinical operations, but also understand how they fit into the hospital's ecosystem from a technical perspective.

From procurement to implementation to end of product life monitoring and management, biomedical engineers are engaged with each of these devices. Because of their unique situation in hospital operations, biomedical engineers offer an important added value to information security teams in devising and carrying out cybersecurity strategy.

Where Does Cybersecurity & Biomedical Engineering Converge?

The focus of biomedical engineers on medical devices, many of which are connected to the hospital's network, means they are central to the organization's cybersecurity strategy. One of the biggest challenges when it comes to effective healthcare cybersecurity is endpoint security and management – especially concerning connected medical devices and Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) technologies. Today, there are roughly 15 to 20 connected medical devices per bed in a given hospital; monitoring every device and ensuring all are secure and up to date is a herculean task. As the "owners" of medical devices, biomedical engineers have a critical role to play in the security of these devices.

Combining biomed and cybersecurity also benefits biomedical engineers. Many aspects of a biomedical engineer's standard tasks and responsibilities can be improved when plugged into the larger cybersecurity framework, especially when leveraging the insights provided by a smart cybersecurity solution.

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Inventory Management 

Cyber tooling offers a real-time, dynamic look into medical device inventories. Not only does this provide a bird's eye view of the medical devices currently connected to the network, but it also indexes relevant device details and characteristics in a searchable, easy-to-use, and CMMS-integratable interface. For example, the device type, vendor, model, version, hardware IDs, operating system and software status, as well as the relevant department, the device’s physical location, and more.

For biomedical engineers, cyber tooling helps to more easily keep tabs on the connected medical devices and how they’re being used. Knowing precisely what devices you have available for use, what type of operational states they’re in, and where they are is crucial to keeping your hospital running smoothly. The easier and more quickly you can answer those questions, the better – offering a clear point of synergy with the capabilities of device oriented cyber intelligence solutions.

Quality Assurance

Medical device quality assurance refers to the process of guaranteeing the effectiveness and reliability of connected devices – a key responsibility for biomedical engineers.

Smart cyber tooling allows biomedical engineers and quality professionals to monitor devices throughout their entire lifecycles, from procurement and implementation to maintenance and end of product life management. Cyber risk profiles can help to prioritize and guide efforts to monitor and respond to any threats to a device’s proper functioning. A real-time overview of medical device usage, potential hazards, and tampering vectors is a prerequisite to assuring quality as well as continuity of care.

Maintenance

Oftentimes, maintenance is thought of as purely a matter of hardware preservation. While that is certainly a component, any effective maintenance program must also account for the servicing of a device’s vital software components – including updates and security patches. The right cybersecurity solution can help improve biomedical engineers' maintenance of connected devices by monitoring for new updates and alerting the team when a device's software falls out of date.

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Not only that, but in the same way that CMMS data enrichment can help with inventory management, it can also help in performance management and asset maintenance – even as it relates to hardware. So along with the above-mentioned details, next required maintenance window and next required act of maintenance will be indexed and updated across the device lifecycle. In this sense, cyber tooling enables biomedical engineers to more easily shift from reactive to preventive and even predictive maintenance models.

Compliance

While hospitals must adhere to regulatory guidance and mandates, compliance is also a key business driver and baseline requirement. Compliance with increasingly strict data security and privacy standards is a major challenge as connected devices proliferate. Luckily, automated cyber solutions can identify risks and notify teams to plug gaps before they become a problem.

These solutions can also generate reports that demonstrate compliance, streamlining a process that is in many ways becoming too complex to manage a growing pain for administrators.

End of Product Life Monitoring and Procurement Planning

All devices must ultimately be phased out, whether they are obsolete or simply beyond repair. For hospitals, simply throwing a device away is not an option; connected devices retain sensitive data and need to be properly decommissioned to ensure that any information that could be compromised is wiped prior to disposal.

It's also important that a replacement device is ready to go before the old device is removed. The premature removal of a medical device could disrupt the entire system or result in unanticipated regulatory implications, so having a replacement lined up is key.

This is once again where having CMMS enrichment factors in. Smart solutions will add important information fields to the standard digital inventory; fields like device condition, age, and expected lifespan.

Using a cybersecurity tool’s inventory monitoring function alongside automated recall management and cyber risk profiles can help teams determine when a device might need to be phased out and plan more proactively. These automated tools can trigger pre-planned decommissioning and replacement procedures to streamline the process and avoid abrupt changes or operational disruptions.

ROA and Profit Management

Return on assets (ROA) is a key performance indicator that demonstrates how much profit is earned on every dollar invested in assets. Connected medical devices are increasingly important assets in the modern hospital, but how can organizations tell if their investment in these devices are paying off?

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Capturing the ROA on a given medical device involves tracking the demand for a device, the length of time for each instance of device utilization, the length of time between instances of, the average revenue derived from each instance, the average costs incurred from each instance, and a quantified impact analysis (including risks) of usage or non-usage on the broader resource ecosystem – both human and technology resources alike. Only once you have all that information can you begin going to work making adjustments to maximize your ROA.

Of course, with so many connected devices, it is a nearly impossible task without automation. A cybersecurity solution can serve as an asset utilization tracker to help provide important ROA insights and more optimally manage profit margins.

Cybersecurity and Biomedical Synergies

Biomedical engineering teams are focused on the procurement, implementation, and use of connected medical devices. A main objective for biomedical engineers is to ensure that these devices continue working as intended and ultimately improve hospital operations.

Cybersecurity solutions built for endpoint mapping and network visualization offer unprecedented insights into the functioning of every connected medical device on the hospital's network. This makes endpoint cybersecurity solutions an ideal tool for biomedical engineering teams to leverage in order to achieve their goals. And, since education and training on how to use connected medical devices begins with the biomedical engineering team, so too should best cybersecurity practices.

This cuts to the heart of why cybersecurity is important for biomedical engineers. Advanced solutions grant an overarching view of a hospital's network and all the devices connected to it. Not only does the overview help biomedical engineering teams to improve their internal processes, but it can help them to identify overlap between departments and unite the broader organization under a unified cybersecurity strategy.

The improved vantage point offered by an advanced cybersecurity solution gives biomed teams the information they need to truly serve as the bridge that connects clinical operators, information security teams, and administrators together.


Cyber monitoring and management solutions aren't limited purely to matters of  security. In fact, when smartly applied they can be just as insightful and  useful in matters of operational excellence »

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