My notes and other stuff


Paper: You Want My Password or a Dead Patient?

This week's paper is a draft from Ross Koppel, Sean Smith, Jim Blythe, and Vijay Kothari titled Workarounds to Computer Access in Healthcare Organizations: You Want My Password or a Dead Patient? First of all, great title. This paper is a work of ethnography, where the authors sat and studied how people in medical settings did their work interacting with computers, and denoted all sorts of workarounds they'd take to bypass security rules that they judge are a hindrance to their work.

The idea behind the paper is that clearly, people behind the computer systems are not working from a realistic understanding of what medical professionals have to contend with to do their job. And maybe, just maybe if they sat and figured out how said professionals do their work, it may be different:

Cyber security efforts in healthcare settings increasingly confront workarounds and evasions by clinicians and employees who are just trying to do their work in the face of often onerous and irrational computer security rules. These are not terrorists or black hat hackers, but rather clinicians trying to use the computer system for conventional healthcare activities. These “evaders” acknowledge that effective security controls are, at some level, important—especially the case of an essential service, such as healthcare. [...] Unfortunately, all too often, with these tools, clinicians cannot do their job—and the medical mission trumps the security mission.

Mostly, the idea is that computer and security experts rarely happen to also be clinical care experts. What the paper finds through observations, interviews, and reports, is that:

workarounds to cyber security are the norm, rather than the exception. They not only go unpunished, they go unnoticed in most settings—and often are taught as correct practice.

They break down workarounds in categories, and they're just amazing.


They note endemic circumvention of password-based auth. Hospitals and clinics write down passwords everywhere, sometimes as "sticky notes form sticky stalagmites on medical devices and medication preparation room". They've noted things like:

Sticker distributed by a health IT vendor, stating 'You may use these stickers to write your username and password, and post it on your computer monitor'. The sticker has a link to the login URL, and a line for a username and a password

In general, this happens because no one wants to prevent a clinician from obtaining emergency supplies and someone dying because the code slipped their mind. In some cases, passwords are shared so everyone can read the same patient charts, even if they do have shared access. In some cases, bad actors can use this to mess with data.

But really even the passwords themselves are worse in healthcare. The paper states "the US Inspection General notes that NIST will certify EHR systems as secure even if passwords are only one-character long", for example.

Password expiry also gets a slam:

one physician colleague lamented that a practice may require a physician to do rounds at a hospital monthly—but that unfortunate expiration intervals can force the physician to spend as long at the help desk resetting an expired password as he or she then spends treating patients.


This one is neat. After you authentified someone, you need to de-auth them when they walk away so their session ends and nobody surfs on their login. In some cases forgetting to log out can lead to abuse or mistakes where people enter information for wrong patients. Unfortunately, this is often undesirable as well and so they note the following workarounds:

One clinician mentioned that his dictation system has a 5 minutes timeout that requires a password and that during a 14-hour day, he spends almost 1.5 hours logging in. In other cases, the auto-logout feature exists on some systems but not all of them such that sometimes staff expect to be logged out when they are not.

One specific example of such usability problem is:

A nurse reports that one hospital’s EMR prevented users from logging in if they were already logged in somewhere else, although it would not meaningfully identify where the offending session was. Unfortunately, the nursing workflow included frequent interruptions—unexpectedly calling a nurse away from her COW. The workflow also included burdensome transitions, such as cleaning and suiting up for surgery. These security design decisions and workflow issues interacted badly: when a nurse going into surgery discovered she was still logged-in, she’d either have to un-gown—or yell for a colleague in the non-sterile area to interrupt her work and go log her out.

Which is an interesting way to see how compliance requirements can interact oddly with the reality on the ground.

Breaking the Representation

Usability problems often result in medical staff working around the system in a way that creates mismatches between reality and what the system sees reported.

One example given is that one Electronic Health Record (EHR) system forces clinicians to prescribe blood thinners to patient meeting given criteria before they can end their session, even if the patient is already on blood thinners. So clinicians have to do a risky workaround where they order a second dose of blood thinners to log out (which is lethal if the patient gets it), quit the system, then log back in to cancel the second dose.

Another example comes from a city hospital where creating a death certificate requires a doctor's digital thumbprint. Unfortunately for that hospital, there is a single doctor that has thumbs that the digital reader manages to scan, so the doctor ends up signing all the death certificates for that hospital regardless of whose patient the deceased was.

There's yet more for these mismatches:

None of this is really surprising to me; any inadequate system seems to have a tendency to create its own shadow workflow that hides problems by working around them.

Permission Management

Access control plainly sucks, if I can be allowed the editorial tone:

Clinicians often have multiple responsibilities—sometimes moving between hospitals with multiple roles at each one, but accessing the same back-end EHR. Residents change services every 30 days during their training. If access is limited to one service, it needs to be reconfigured that often. However, a resident may be consulted about a former patient, to which he/she no longer has access. More frequent are clinicians who serve in multiple roles: the CMIO may need access to every patient record, not only those in her/his specific medical sub-discipline. A physician who focuses on infectious disease may also be on the committee that oversees medication errors, and thus requires access to the pharmacy IT system and the nurses medication administration system. In some hospitals, nurses sometimes authenticate as nurses and sometimes as doctors.

Also not surprised.

Undermining the Medical Mission

Many health IT systems are so bad they're seen as harming the medical objectives of practitioners.

The example given here is that some hospitals have tele-ICU, where patients must be monitored from distant nurse stations, which has a video feed and all the vitals relayed there. However, when bathing patients, the nurses have to cover the cameras to protect their privacy, and so the ICU can't monitor them adequately anymore.

There's also a case where a doctor couldn't find the required medication in the software. He found a custom field with free text where he noted the prescription, but the box was not visible on the other end so the prescription was never given and the patient lost half his stomach.

Finally, the authors circle back on the value of ethnographic investigations to properly adapt tools to work. They end by stating:

in the inevitable conflict between even well-intended people vs. the machines and the machine rule makers, it’s the people who are more creative and motivated.

I do also appreciate the 'well-intended' qualifier, and I felt like this sentence was a good way to end given current events.