As if the coronavirus hasn’t had a big enough impact on hospitals nationwide, a computer outage at a major hospital chain pushed the healthcare facilities into even larger chaos on Monday.
Treatments were delayed as doctors and nurses had to turn to paper backup systems to support patients.
In a statement posted on their website Monday, the Universal Health Services, Inc. which operates more than 250 hospitals and clinical facilities across the US, blamed the large outage on an unspecified IT “security issue”.
The statement provided no details about the incident or exactly how many facilities were affected and to what extent. They also did not mention if any patients had to be diverted to other hospitals for care.
The Associated Press reached out to several University Health Services workers in locations like Texas and Washington D.C. who described the outage as a mad scramble to provide care, which caused longer emergency room waits and anxiety over determining which patients might be infected with COVID-19.
University Health Services is a fortune 500 company that employees nearly 90,000 employees and in a statement made on Monday they said that “No patient or employee data appears to have been accessed, copied or misused” and that they have “extensive IT security protocols and are working diligently with our IT security partners to restore IT operations as quickly as possible. In the meantime, our facilities are using their established back-up processes including offline documentation methods.”
Senior Cybersecurity Adviser for the American Hospital Association, John Riggi, said he thinks it is a “suspected ransomware attack” which affirms much of the speculation of people on the popular social media site Reddit.
People posting in the threads identified themselves as UHS employees who described ransomware with the characteristics of Ryuk, which has been widely linked to Russian cyber-criminals and used against large enterprises.
Online security news media outlet,BleepingComputer, also wrote an interesting article stating that they also see characteristics of a Ryuk ransomware attack.
Attacks on health care institutions have been on the rise as criminals infiltrate their systems with ransomware, infecting their networks with malicious code that scrambles data.
To unlock the data and get their systems back, the healthcare institutions need to pay a ransom fee.
Earlier this month a hospital was hit with a ransomware attack that crippled their system and lead to the first known fatality related to ransomware.
The attack caused their IT systems to come to a halt and a critically ill patient needing urgent admission needed to be transported to another city for treatment, unfortunately she died en route.
UHS has hospital locations from Washington, D.C., to Fremont, California, and Orlando, Florida, to Anchorage, Alaska. Some of its facilities provide care for people coping with psychiatric conditions and substance abuse problems.
One clinician working with patients at a Washington location on the day of the attack describes a high level of anxiety among doctors, nurses and patients as the phones and computers stopped working.
“These thing could be life or death,” said the clinician.
The medical staff could not access lab results, imaging scans, patient information, medication lists, and other critical pieces of information for decision making and care.
In another facility in Texas one healthcare worker said “As of right now we have no access to any patient files, history nothing. With emergency room wait times going from 45 minutes to six hours, doctors aren’t able to access any type of X-rays, CT scans.”
Furthermore, anything that was running on Wi-Fi alone was not functioning on Monday which included telemetry monitors that show critical information like patient heart rates, blood pressure, and oxygen levels.
The entire day was stressful and nerve-wracking as hospital staff tried to navigate and care for patients on limited resources and information.
“We are most concerned with ransomware attacks which have the potential to disrupt patient care operations and risk patient safety,” said Riggi, the cybersecurity adviser to hospitals. “We believe any cyber-attack against any hospital or health system is a threat-to-life crime and should be responded to and pursued as such by the government.”
But hospitals are not the only ones crippled by ransomware attacks. Attacks have occurred on major cities, school districts and even local and federal government organizations.
It is estimated that the overall cost of ransomware attacks in the U.S. alone is close to $9 billion a year in terms of recovery and lost productivity and 764 healthcare providers were victimized last year alone.
The only way to recover a system that is hit by a ransomware attack is to either pay the ransom or recover the data through daily backup systems.