Setting the bar high

Clinical nursing associate professor Sabra Custer is demanding — with a purpose

Sabra Custer expects a lot from her students because a lot is being asked of them.

Custer, a clinical associate professor at the University of South Carolina’s College of Nursing, is a 2017 winner of the school’s Clinical Teaching Award for nursing.

“I set high standards for students,” says Custer, who is also a nurse practitioner at the Palmetto Health-USC Medical Group. “I’ve come to discover over the years that students respond to that predictability. You can set really high standards as long as you’re consistent.”

Custer, who completed her graduate work and clinical practice at USC, was once in the shoes of the undergraduates she’s taught for seven years. It’s important that students understand what’s expected of them, she says, because the work they’re training to do is vital.

That point is driven home when undergraduates shadow Custer during clinic visits with the HIV-positive patients who comprise the bulk of her clinical practice. In addition to training her students in how to treat those patients, Custer also strives to make them understand how getting to know the patients as people will help improve health outcomes.

“The types of patients I see, the challenges and experiences that a lot of these low-income, uninsured people have had, has taught me to approach a patient trying to figure out what their priorities are and what is important to them,” she says. “I think I’ve improved on learning to work with them in their system instead of trying to impose my priorities.

You can set really high standards as long as you’re consistent.

Sabra Custer

 “That builds a trust and a relationship. The better you get at understanding someone’s background, their surroundings and their culture, that helps you communicate and connect with them better.”

Those relationships are especially crucial for patients with limited medical resources.

“A lot of times, I have been the only health care provider they have seen since they were diagnosed,” Custer says. “The undergraduates who shadow me see patients from such different backgrounds and learn about the lack of resources that some patients have. I think it opens their eyes a little bit.”

Influencing a student’s perception of and interaction with a patient is Custer’s ultimate goal — and why she doubts students will ever find her a “warm and fuzzy” professor.

“I tell them how it’s going to be. I tell them how I am,” she says. “I try to make it clear to them that we are preparing them for further independence by holding them responsible now.”

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