Virtual desktops convenient for healthcare, though highly unsecure

Virtual desktops have become extremely useful in many different industries across a variety of sectors since they allow for many users to log in and work from a single computer or stations.

Essentially, a virtual desktop allows for an individual user's interface in a virtualized environment, which is stored on a remote server rather than on a local machine. Desktop virtualization separates the physical machine from the software and presents an isolated operating system for users.


The use of virtual desktops is quite common throughout healthcare and in the hospital setting, where doctors are moving from room to room and need to work from different computers in different locations.

While virtual desktops as a concept and solutions can be beneficial, if used alone, they can produce many issues and limitations. For example, using hospital employees as an example again, where employees move to different desktops or stations frequently, logging in to all of their applications and systems on workstation each time an employee switches computers is a major inconvenience, not to mention time consuming. Further, new and ever-changing regulations may prohibit the use of any type of shared account commonly found in a virtual desktop environment. For this reason, this is why many organizations have realized that the benefits of a virtual desktop can be made even greater if used in conjunction with a single sign-on or other automated access management solution.

The use of the virtual desktop continues to grow, however. As proof, in a 2012 study conducted by Spiceworks, results showed that more than 60 percent of organizations surveyed were planning to roll out or evaluate desktop virtualization. Many of these surveyed organizations also are or have implemented a single sign-on solution in conjunction with virtual desktops. The reasons for this are many, as I'll explain.

Easy Movement

In healthcare especially, clinicians need quick access to their computers and work stations. While a virtual desktop allows them to easily move around to different rooms on their rounds, there's usually quite a bit of wasted time because of caregivers needing to repeatedly log in to numerous applications. Anything that slows down the log in process can have a negative impact on the care of the patient. This is mitigated by a single sign-on solution, allowing the end user to provide their credentials a single time and automatically be authenticated each time a program is launched. So, when an employee moves to another workstation in the hospital, they simply need to enter their single set of credentials and have access to everything they need to perform their jobs.

Government Regulation

Another issue that many organizations have with virtual desktops is that employees often have shared accounts on them, which goes against HIPAA regulations. HIPAA requires that healthcare organizations show exactly who has access to secure data, and ensures that this data is kept safe. Health systems also need to track who exactly is accessing information and entering a system or information and making changes to the organization's secure data, such as patient information.

Because of this, hospitals must eliminate all shared accounts to determine who is making what changes where to what information in a record. Single sign-on technology can assist with this change by allowing the end users to have their own log in, but only needing to remember a single set of their own credentials.

Increased Productivity

Another reason that health systems implement SSO with virtual desktops is because they have seen an increase in productivity. End users are able to quickly access what they need to complete their work, without needing to repeatedly log in to each system and application. The log in process becomes even more of a hassle when a user forgets their password to one of their applications and is locked out of their account. SSO makes it much easier for end users to remember their credentials since they only are required to know one set instead of several sets of complicated user names and passwords. This alone can save users a tremendous amount of time each day. Several vendors also offer an open session on a virtual desktop to be easily moved to another workstation. If the user needs to change locations, he has the ability to have the session "follow" him to another workplace without the need to open all of these applications again.


Lastly, single sign-on can make a virtual desktop more secure. SSO can be paired with two-factor authentication to add an additional layer of security. Two-factor authentication requires users to enter a PIN as well as present their access badge to access the computer or workstation. This ensures that the user is who they claim to be.

Overall, virtual desktops, in conjunction with SSO, is able to help organizations to meet regulation and protect data, while also allowing for the extra benefit of increased productivity and fast, but secure, access to systems and applications used throughout the workday; especially important to those providing care to patients.

Dean Wiech is managing director of Tools4ever, a global provider of identity and access management solutions, with a particular focus in healthcare.

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