Caring for terminally ill persons: comparative analysis of attitudes (thanatophobia) of practicing physicians, student nurses, and medical students

Psychol Rep. 1998 Aug;83(1):123-8. doi: 10.2466/pr0.1998.83.1.123.


To investigate why some caregivers desire to avoid patients with terminal illnesses, a thanatophobia scale assessing caregivers' uncomfortable feelings and sense of helplessness was developed and evaluated among practicing physicians and student nurses and medical students. As a group, student nurses scored lower on the thanatophobia scale than practicing physicians and medical students. Higher scores on intolerance to clinical uncertainty were associated with higher thanatophobia scores in all groups. Scores for depressed mood, decreased sensitivity, and Machiavellianism were statistically significant predictors in some groups. Higher thanatophobia scores also predicted lower scores for ratings of self-esteem in caring for elderly patients. Among senior medical students, those with lower thanatophobia scores tended to enter primary care residencies. Health professional educators may find this scale helpful both in pinpointing sources of caregivers' angst and useful in counseling students in management of terminally ill persons.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Attitude to Death*
  • Fear*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Personality Inventory
  • Physicians / psychology
  • Students, Medical / psychology
  • Students, Nursing / psychology
  • Terminal Care / psychology*