Measuring the Power of Compassion

Anyone who has spent time in a hospital knows the difference a caring nurse can make. A warm smile or kind touch can turn frustration into shared understanding.

But does compassion translate into better patient care? And how do nurses maintain a compassionate presence in the face of mounting pressures like high-need patients and long work hours? These questions lie at the heart of research underway in the UVA School of Nursing.

It’s called the Compassionate Care Initiative, and Tim Cunningham, who directs the program, says the goal is to gauge how teaching self-care strategies like yoga and mindfulness to nurses improves patient care, diffuses stress, and builds resilience.

“We know that self-care practices work,” says Cunningham, “but they must be done consistently over time to maintain the benefits. Our students enjoy short-term benefits, but we need to study a large sample size over time to see how they sustain their practice and manage stress.”

The study will contribute to a growing body of evidence related to the importance of self-care and compassion in healthcare—a cause that Rebecca Ruegger (BSN ’73) and her husband, Philip, are happy to champion.

The couple recently made a significant commitment to create the Rebecca H. and Philip T. Ruegger Endowed Nursing Fund to advance research in resilience and compassion as part of the Compassionate Care Initiative.

“The idea of cultivating compassion in healthcare resonates with me,” says Ruegger. “When I was still working, I practiced yoga, and thanks to that self-care, I noticed a difference in how I felt and what I was able to give back in work and in life.”

She also sees an opportunity for the School of Nursing to make a broader impact.

“If we put the research behind it, the Compassionate Care Initiative has the potential to change healthcare, resulting in better quality of care, less burnout, and more fulfilled providers,” says Ruegger. “The School of Nursing has an opportunity to become a national leader in this arena.”

Cunningham believes the number of people positively impacted by the initiative will quickly soar into the hundreds, if not thousands.

“This work gives us something we can measure,” says Cunningham. “What we can never truly measure, however, is the impact this work will have on patients being cared for by providers who remain present and calm in moments of crisis, and the lives that will be saved by what we are doing to develop these skills.”


To create their nursing research fund, the Rueggers are using a blended gift structure. Part of their gift is intended for current use, and part is a commitment in their estate plans. For the current funding, the Rueggers are using a qualified charitable distribution from an IRA that is paid directly to the School of Nursing.