Hospitals across the world were forced to pay out $121m (£94m) in 2016 as hackers have started targeting healthcare institutions in ransom attacks.

The figure, revealed by computer security specialist McAfee in a report, shows how cybercriminals are viewing hospitals as one of the most lucrative avenues for generating an income in today's technological environment.

Hackers reportedly view hospitals as a "soft target" because their reluctance to update IT infrastructure makes them vulnerable to attack, while the necessity of saving patients' lives makes them more likely to pay.

Commenting on the £94m figure, Roland Moore-Colyer of IT publication Silicon said: "More organisations like hospitals are being targeted as they are seen by hackers to have legacy IT systems that cannot effectively defend against ransomware attacks.

"As these organisations have not historically been targets of ransomware, they have not had the impetus to have robust cyber security, which now means they are 'soft targets' for hackers and cyber criminals.

"With the need for rapid access to information, hospitals in particular are more likely to pay the hackers to release them from the ransomware, making healthcare organisations a lucrative target."

It comes as the NHS became the biggest victim of a global ransomware attack in which as many as 45 hospitals across England and Scotland were compromised.

Hospital staff were frozen out of their computers and could only regain access if they paid a ransom of $300 worth of Bitcoin. According to images of affected computers, staff have been told that the payment amount will rise on Monday (15 May) and, if payment is not received, all data will be lost by Friday (19 May).

Prime Minister Theresa May has stressed that the NHS was not directly targeted in this attack, but has instead been swept up in an international effort.

However, it has been revealed that the NHS was more likely to fall prey to such an attempt as up to 90% of hospitals still use Windows XP – an obsolete 16-year-old operating system that is no longer supported by Microsoft.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has questioned why NHS IT systems were not replaced in 2014, when Microsoft officially ended support for XP.