Compassionate practice is a public expectation and a core health professional value. However, in the face of growing public and professional unease about a perceived absence of compassion in health care it is essential that the role of education in developing compassionate practitioners is fully understood. The aim of this study was to explore qualified health professionals' and pre-registration students' understanding of compassion and the role of health professional education in promoting compassionate care. A sequential explanatory mixed methods study collected data using surveys and qualitative semi-structured interviews from qualified health professionals (n = 155) and pre-registration students (n = 197). Participants were from a range of health and social care disciplines and registered at a UK university. The findings indicate a high level of consensus in relation to participants' understanding of compassion in health care. Acting with warmth and empathy, providing individualised patient care and acting in a way you would like others to act towards you, were seen as the most common features of compassionate care. However, ambiguities and contradictions were evident when considering the role of health professional education in promoting compassionate practice. This study adds to the debate and current understanding of the role of education in fostering compassionate health care practice.