How to Implement a Cyber Incident Response Plan for Healthcare

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In today’s digital landscape, healthcare organizations must be prepared to prevent and respond if a security breach or data incident occurs. An incident response plan (IRP) is essential for organizations to protect themselves and their data during a data breach. Developing an effective IRP requires understanding the 6 phases of an incident response plan; Prepare, Identify, Contain, Eradicate, Recover, and Review. In this article, I will discuss the importance of an IRP and what should be included in one. Furthermore, it will cover the breach notification rule, public communications, system backup and recovery processes list, forensic analysis list, and incident response containment measures.

By following the steps outlined in this article, organizations can better understand the risks associated with data breaches, take a comprehensive approach to incident response planning and implement the necessary steps and strategies.

1. Define Your Problem

Before a healthcare provider can craft the perfect incident response plan, it is essential to define the problems the provider may face or are likely to encounter. In the cybersecurity industry, we sometimes call this risk profiling. Understanding the scope of the issues that can arise is paramount when creating an effective IRP.

To handle the scope of data breaches and the security of ePHI, healthcare providers should first take an in-depth look at their current security protocols and procedures. By understanding the protective measures already in place, healthcare providers can assess where additional resources and steps should be taken to prevent further and contain potential security breaches.

Tabletop exercises are another way healthcare providers can identify weak spots in their security systems. These exercises involve a simulated incident that tests the organization’s response and helps it identify any areas that need to be addressed. Additionally, such exercises allow healthcare providers to assess how their current processes and procedures will likely respond to various scenarios.

By understanding the scope of the problem and assessing existing security systems, healthcare providers can begin to develop an incident response plan that will safeguard against any data breaches and protect the security of their ePHI. Additionally, with a well-crafted incident response plan, healthcare providers can ensure that their organization is prepared for future security issues.

2. Assess Risks and Vulnerabilities

When creating an IRP for healthcare organizations, it is essential to assess the risks and vulnerabilities present in the system. This is important for identifying the highest-risk areas and creating the appropriate response plans. Therefore, security risk assessments with a lens on healthcare data issues, such as HIPAA Risk Assessments, are very relevant here.

In the healthcare setting, one of the most important risk factors is the sensitive information stored in the system, known as electronic protected health information (ePHI). This information is subject to privacy regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Therefore, healthcare organizations must comply with these regulations to avoid any security breaches.

Another risk factor to consider is the presence of internal and external malicious actors. Measures should be taken to ensure the system is protected from malicious actors and that any potential breaches are detected and responded to quickly.

Additionally, organizations should assess their network infrastructure to identify any potential vulnerabilities that could be exploited. This can involve conducting vulnerability scanning and penetration testing to identify any weak points in the system.

Lastly, organizations should consider the effectiveness of their security policies and procedures. This can involve conducting a tabletop exercise to assess the response to a hypothetical security breach. This can help identify any weaknesses in the system and allow the organization to make necessary improvements.

By assessing the risks and vulnerabilities present in the system, healthcare organizations can ensure that their IRP is tailored to address their specific needs and adequately protect against data breaches.

3. Develop a Resilience Framework

It’s important to consider resilience and response strategies to protect data and ePHI. To develop a comprehensive resilience framework, organizations should start by assessing their security measures to identify potential risks. This assessment should consider the organization’s threats, vulnerabilities, and security controls.

Identify Your Risk Level with a Vulnerability Assessment

Organizations should then focus on developing a response framework that focuses on a holistic approach to incident response. This framework should begin with a well-researched set of procedures and protocols to ensure all potential incidents are handled swiftly and accurately. The framework should also incorporate a strategy for managing and containing data breaches and effective ways to limit the impact.

Organizations must also develop a clear communication plan to ensure that all relevant parties are notified in the event of an incident. This plan should specify who should be informed when an incident occurs, how the process should be monitored, and the methods for providing accurate updates. Additionally, organizations should ensure adequate training is provided to staff members to help ensure they are well-versed with the protocols and procedures.

Healthcare organizations should consider incorporating tabletop exercises into their incident response plan. Tabletop exercises provide an invaluable opportunity to test the performance and accuracy of the plan, as well as identify any gaps or vulnerabilities that require attention. Through these exercises, organizations can develop an effective plan tailored to their specific needs and help reduce the organizational risk of a security breach.

4. Articulate Organizational Responsibilities

You are under attack, and chaos ensues. The sky is falling, and nobody knows what to do. Don’t worry; it has happened or will happen to every company. Having an IRP helps organizations prepare for a data breach and respond quickly. Creating an effective IRP requires a thorough understanding of the organization’s needs and the ability to articulate the organization’s roles and responsibilities in the event of a security breach.

The first step in articulating organizational responsibilities is understanding the organization’s scope: what kind of data is being managed, how it is stored, who has access to it, and how it is protected. Once that information is gathered, it is time to begin outlining the specific roles and responsibilities of the organization in the event of a security breach or other incident.

For healthcare organizations, some of the responsibilities involved in an IRP include the following:
1. Identify a security incident and the cause of the breach.
2. Develop an appropriate response and notification plan.
3. Define who will be responsible for managing the incident, including any outside parties or contractors.
4. Establish protocols for managing patient data, as well as protocols for protecting ePHI (electronic protected health information).
5. Establish protocols for managing other sensitive information, such as financial data.
6. Launch a comprehensive training program to ensure staff is prepared to respond appropriately to data breaches.
7. Create protocols for responding to customer inquiries regarding the data breach.
8. Evaluate the response to the data breach and make any necessary changes.
9. Conduct regular tabletop exercises to ensure the IRP is up to date and staff is adequately trained.

Organizations should also consider their state’s legal requirements, as many states have specific laws concerning data breaches and the handling of sensitive data. Therefore, organizations should comply with all applicable laws and regulations as part of their IRP.

By properly articulating the roles and responsibilities of the organization in the event of a data breach, organizations can ensure they are adequately prepared to respond to any incident and protect their data. A comprehensive IRP to safeguard against data breaches is essential for any business, regardless of size.

5. Identify Resources to Support Response Activities

Identifying resources in the IRP is essential to support the response activities. These resources may include a communication plan and a response team.

The communication plan should identify various contacts within the organization and external contacts that should be informed of the incident. For example, in many organizations, these key stakeholders might be the Chief Information Security Officer, the Chief Privacy Officer, and other security team members should be notified immediately so that they can take swift action. Establishing a chain of command and communication is essential for a timely and effective response. Additionally, contacts from external entities such as law enforcement and insurance providers should be identified in the plan.

The response team is the individuals responsible for responding to an incident. The team comprises members from various departments, including IT, Legal, Risk and Compliance, and other stakeholders. The team members should be well-trained and understand the strategies and procedures written in the IRP. In addition, all team members have the necessary resources to respond effectively.

6. Develop Your Plan of Action and Tactics

Having a clear set of actions and tactics for any potential security breach can help minimize disruption, reduce costs, and ensure the safe handling of ePHI.

The first step in developing a plan of action and tactics is establishing a timeline for the response. An effective timeline should set a process for handling the initial incident and any follow-up activities. This timeline should outline which team members should respond to each step of the incident and when and how they should respond. It should also specify any legal or regulatory requirements that must be met during the response.

Next, you should develop a set of tactics that can be used to address the incident. These tactics should be tailored to the specific type of incident being addressed. For example, if the incident involves the theft of ePHI, the tactics should focus on recovering the stolen data and minimizing the risk of further compromise. Likewise, if the incident involves a software vulnerability, the tactics should focus on patching the vulnerability and mitigating any potential damage.

By developing a plan of action and tactics for responding to a data breach, healthcare organizations can minimize the risk of damage and ensure the safe handling of ePHI. In addition, with an effective plan, healthcare organizations can be confident that they are prepared to respond quickly and efficiently during a security incident.

7. Create a Communication Strategy

When a security breach occurs, it is essential for healthcare organizations to have an effective communication plan in place, as it is imperative to alert them of any irregularities as quickly as possible. This could mean sending out a notification to employees, communicating with legal counsel, or even issuing a public relations announcement. Whatever the method of communication may be, they must all be included in the IRP.

Let’s face it, sending this type of bad news is incredibly disheartening, especially when it will likely result in a negative company perception. Public Relations firms specializing in mass communication with tact and professionalism can be suitable allies here.

Another critical step is ensuring the communication strategy is tailored to meet the organization’s purposes and objectives. This may include ensuring that the plan addresses all relevant stakeholders and that the terminology reflects the organization’s culture and values. Also, it’s vital to ensure that any notifications sent out follow applicable data privacy laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH). These laws help to protect electronic protected health information (ePHI), and failure to comply can result in severe penalties or fines.

By following the steps outlined above, healthcare organizations can ensure an effective communication strategy in case of a breach. In addition, having an incident response plan allows organizations to identify, assess and respond to data breaches quickly and effectively, minimizing the threat and potential damage.

8. Train Users and Test the Plan

The 8th and final step of crafting an ideal IRP for healthcare organizations to safeguard against data breaches is training users and testing the plan. Once healthcare organizations have formulated an effective IRP, they must educate their team members. Training should include understanding each team member’s role, recognizing indicators of a data breach, and understanding how to report a security breach. Furthermore, health organizations should consider performing tabletop exercises to simulate a security breach and better understand their IRP. This can include a discussion of potential scenarios and possible outcomes and testing the implementation of their plans.

For some, testing is considered code for; no testing. That’s right. One of the most frequently missed aspects of a great IRP is the importance of testing. To find discrepancies, inefficiencies, mistakes, and other issues is through routine and consistent testing.

Tabletop exercises can help healthcare organizations identify gaps in their incident response plan and refine their procedures. They can also provide an opportunity to practice communication between members of the response team and identify any communication issues that must be addressed. For example, suppose a healthcare organization experiences a breach of ePHI. In that case, the response team should clearly understand who should be informed and when to ensure proper security measures are taken. Tabletop exercises can also help healthcare organizations practice their response plan in a low-stakes environment, so the response team is adequately prepared when an actual security breach does occur.

Healthcare organizations can better safeguard themselves from data breaches by training users and testing the incident response plan. This helps to ensure the response team is well-informed and that any potential risks or gaps in their procedures can be identified before an actual security breach occurs.

9. Monitor and Test Your Plan’s Effectiveness

Monitoring and testing your IRP are essential to ensure it effectively safeguard against data breaches in your healthcare organization. Testing may sound tedious, but it is necessary to ensure the plan is complete and effective in addressing a potential data breach or other security incidents.

Monitoring your IRP should be an ongoing process. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) suggests that organizations should “periodically review the IRP and coordinate with the appropriate teams to ensure the plan is up to date.” This includes regularly assessing the plan concerning industry standards, technological changes, and new threats.

Testing the IRP can take many forms. Penetration testing, for example, can be used to evaluate the organization’s overall security posture. Doing so can help identify potential weaknesses that cybercriminals could exploit. Another testing option is a tabletop exercise, where the organization’s team of responders discusses and practices their response to a simulated breach. Risk assessments focusing on HIPAA data, PHI, and ePHI can also be effective tests.

In addition to identifying potential weaknesses in security protocols and processes, testing the IRP can help ensure that the organization’s team of responders is familiar with the plan and have the necessary skills and knowledge for successful implementation.

Healthcare organizations can ensure they are prepared to respond quickly, efficiently, and effectively to a data breach or security incident by monitoring and testing the IRP. While testing may seem onerous, ensuring your organization’s sensitive health data is fully protected is critical.

10. Incident Response Containment Measures

Rapid containment and prevention of further breach activity are essential when a data security breach is identified. To ensure effective containment measures, healthcare organizations should consider the following:

1. Immediately shut down any affected systems or networks to limit further damage.
2. Isolating computers or other devices that the breach may have compromised.
3. Implement additional security measures on machines or networks exposed to the breach.
4. Document any changes made to a system or network that has been compromised.
5. Utilizing backup systems or alternative processes for any critical operations.
6. Limiting the amount of traffic sent or received from the affected system.
7. Changing passwords for all personnel, including administrative users.
8. Removing or disabling any compromised accounts or software.
9. Regularly review access logs and other diagnostic data.
10. Ensuring that any affected systems or processes are not connected to other systems or networks containing sensitive ePHI data.


Crafting a great incident response plan to safeguard against data breaches is a complex process essential for businesses and organizations handling sensitive customer data. By following the steps outlined in this article, organizations can dramatically reduce the likelihood of data breach incidents and ensure they are prepared to respond promptly and effectively.

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