Making the pieces fit

Clinical pharmacy assistant professor Julie Ann Justo enjoys solving problems in practice

For Julie Ann Justo, it’s about making the pieces fit.

Justo, an assistant professor of clinical pharmacy and outcomes sciences at the University of South Carolina, specializes in infectious diseases — learning how they work and how to best treat them.

“I love puzzles, and infectious diseases are very much a puzzle,” Justo says. “You have the  patient, and you have their symptoms, but then you also have the bug, and you have to match the bug with the drug. There can be multiple right answers, but there’s normally one or two optimal answers. That space between what’s acceptable and what’s optimal is really the majority of what I do on a daily basis.”

Justo, a 2017 Clinical Teaching Award winner, puts her puzzle-solving passion to work in both the classroom and at her in-patient practice site at Palmetto Health Richland, where the two students per month who go on rounds with her have to be able to process a lot of information.

“My rotation normally fills up very quickly, but the word on the street is that it’s long hours,” Justo says. “Motivated students are the ones seeking that out. They’re coming wanting to learn, but knowing they might be there for 12 hours.”

Justo, a board-certified pharmacotherapy specialist with added qualifications in infectious diseases, and her students often work with HIV patients, some of whom serve as peer health advocates.

“We’ve really learned the value of our patients as educators,” she says. “The patient is part of the team. In HIV care in particular, when they go home, they’re the ones that are going to be motivating themselves to take medication every day and get through the side effects and come back for the clinic visit.”

I love puzzles, and infectious diseases are very much a puzzle.

Julie Ann Justo

While Justo has seen HIV care improve and the stigma surrounding it lessen, uninformed perceptions still exist. Justo says her students were surprised to hear a recent patient mention being refused dental care because of her HIV-positive status.

“HIV-positive patients are very aware of how close providers are willing to get, whether or not they’re willing to shake their hand or give them a hug,” Justo says. “Just a simple touch on the shoulder can be enough to help them with that trust.”

To lighten what can be heavy subject matter, Justo employs a bit of humor in her classroom. Her office contains shelves full of large stuffed microbes, including a pink spirochete symbolizing syphilis and a red-and-white virus with a rooster’s comb representing chicken pox. Students form teams based on the microbe mascots and compete in Jeopardy-styled classroom competitions.

“If it’s grim every day, people get burned out,” Justo says. “I use these kinds of things to keep it light.”

Her ultimate goal for her students, though, is quite serious.

“At this point in their careers, it’s less about the letter grade and more about, ‘Would you trust yourself to care for someone you love?’ ” Justo says. “You can be just an OK health care provider, but we’re trying to train health care providers that people seek.” 

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