From the Frontline – Two Words to Avoid “Good Luck!”

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It happened again: two words that bug me because I never know what to say in return…I was leaving a client site and heading home when a very well-meaning assistant kindly said, “Have a safe trip!” I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve heard that – “Safe trip!” or “Safe travels!” or “Safe flight!”  Not to sound ungrateful here but I never know what to say in response! I usually give an awkward “Thanks.” I think the reason this bugs me so much is because in contrast to when I drive a car (I’m in control of my speed, how alert I am, whether I switch lanes or not, etc.), when I fly, I’m at the complete mercy of the pilot and co-pilot to keep me safe. So, when someone wishes me a safe trip or safe flight, it’s like, “Yeah that’s what I hope for too!”

Despite the well wishes I’d received that day, we almost didn’t have a safe trip at all.

I was flying back to Minneapolis from St. Louis and when we were getting ready to take off, the pilot came on and warned us that we should expect some turbulence on the ride home. He wasn’t joking about that as they even had to discontinue the beverage service halfway through the flight (although thankfully I’d already gotten my Fresca by then!).

Later, during what should have been near the end of our descent, as we approached the runway and I could see the trees and even the lines on the pavement, suddenly we shot back up into the clouds!  We had aborted our landing just before we touched down. All sorts of thoughts were going through my head, like “Did someone take over the cockpit?”, “Why is it so eerily silent in the cabin?”, “What happened to the pilot?”, and “Why is no one telling us what’s going on?!?!”

After ten long and nerve-wracking minutes, the pilot came on the PA and assured us we were finally in a safe place and let us in on the fact that there was another plane on our runway right as we were about to land! Later we came back around and the man sitting next to me gave me the thumbs up as we landed. I found out he was a pilot who had apparently done that before many times himself (but never on a commercial airliner!).

This whole experience made me realize how vulnerable I was when travelling by plane. In that moment that there was nothing I could do to ensure a “safe flight.” I thanked my lucky stars for the hopes and well wishes I’d received from the assistant earlier that afternoon. I was completely in the hands of the pilot and his crew to get me home safely and with the outcome that I needed and wanted.

As I reflected on this, I remembered a transporter that I had been shadowing and coaching that week. As he deposited the patient at the procedure area he left her with “Good luck!” He was kind and well-meaning but these were his parting words to the patient. Later, I heard a nursing assistant say, “Good luck!” to a patient as the nurse was helping to transport him down to surgery. These comments struck me as the healthcare equivalent to “Have a safe trip!”

Imagine if when you got on the plane the gate agent, the flight attendant, or the pilot had greeted you with a “Have a safe flight!”?  You’d probably would freak out because they are the very people you’re trusting to get you home safe and sound! Yet this is what we do to our patients so very often. We’re trying to be encouraging and well-meaning but really doing them a disservice. When we wish a patient “Good luck” or say, “I hope things go well”, it’s like we don’t have any trust in the team that will be caring for them. As one patient said, “I don’t need hope or luck, I need skill.”

So, what could and should we say instead? How about “Take care, I’ll see you when you get back” or “Ms. Gray, you’re in good hands.” Just as when I board a flight, I am completely vulnerable and rely on the expertise of the pilot and their crew, so are our patients when they are going in for a procedure or surgery. Finding ways to reassure them requires thinking about the words that we use and eliminating “Good luck” from our repertoire!

Join us next time when we explore more themes from the frontline!

Janiece Gray

Janiece Gray

I began my career as a social worker and later, with my Master of Health Administration (MHA), directed operations at Allina Health in Minnesota. I later directed patient experience at Allina. My background and experience give me strengths in approaching healthcare opportunities and challenges through a systems lens – with unique strengths, challenges and activation points. My experience is also informed by leadership roles leading performance improvement in patient-centered care and patient experience departments. Working in the client role with healthcare consulting firms inspired me to address some unmet needs in the industry, and to co-found DTA Associates. I have a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, and find that the discipline of practice translates to healthcare work very well.

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