Virtual surgical planning (VSP) is an advanced technology that helps surgeons determine treatment plans and map out related procedures. With VSP, surgeons specifically use CT and 3D images.

The goal of VSP is to help map out a more accurate procedure for complex surgeries and to help reduce undesirable outcomes and complications. However, VSP isn’t appropriate for all procedures. In addition, there are limitations to consider along with the potential benefits.

Here’s the key information you need to know about VSP, including its purpose, its possible risks, and which types of surgeries might benefit from it.

VSP primarily intends to help complex surgeries go smoothly to ensure better outcomes. Not only does VSP help with planning surgeries, but it also allows surgeons to go through different possible scenarios ahead of time.

Another purpose of VSP is to help surgeons virtually tailor the procedure to an individual’s unique anatomy. This can help minimize possible errors and complications.

When you’re considering corrective surgeries, VSP can also help simulate surgical changes to bones and help give both you and your surgeon a better understanding of what the aesthetic outcome might look like.

VSP is a time consuming process because it allows a surgeon to conduct a surgery virtually before doing the actual procedure. However, this can also help shorten the live surgery time.

There are five steps required in VSP:

  1. First, a surgeon will take visual data, primarily through 3D images and CT scans. In some cases, they may also use MRI.
  2. Next, the surgeon will take these images and separate and isolate key components of your anatomy, such as skeletal and muscular, for a more detailed analysis. They may also number these segments so they can easily refer back to them.
  3. Once the surgeon has created these segments, they’ll then integrate other images — such as 3D scans — to help provide other information, like texture and nerves.
  4. The fourth step is the actual VSP, where the surgeon takes all the previous data to create a surgery plan.
  5. Finally, the surgeon may choose to manufacture or print the 3D VSP model. They may also share this model with you before moving forward with the actual surgery.

VSP can support certain surgeries of the face and skull areas. It’s important to note that although VSP is a developing tool in the following types of surgeries, the technology will also likely emerge in other medical fields in the future.

Craniomaxillofacial surgery

Craniomaxillofacial (CMF) surgery is a corrective procedure that involves the skull and face. Also called craniofacial surgery, the procedure can treat birth irregularities and traumatic injuries.

A 2023 review of VSP in CMF surgeries found that people had better outcomes due to more predictability. Here, researchers also found that VSP may reduce time in surgery and time at the hospital.

Maxillofacial surgery

Maxillofacial surgery is a type of procedure that corrects issues with your face, jaw, and neck. Like CMF surgeries, VSP is considered an increasingly useful tool for maxillofacial procedures to help reduce errors and overall time spent in surgery.

Orthognathic surgery

Orthognathic surgery is a procedure that focuses on the jaw only. It’s primarily a reconstructive or cosmetic procedure that straightens your jaw to treat problems like bite issues or skeletal imbalances.

Although surgeons often use images in orthognathic surgery planning, VSP is also becoming a mainstream method to help improve surgical outcomes.

Oncologic surgery

Although it’s not appropriate for all cancers, certain oncologic surgeries may benefit from VSP — particularly those in the bones. According to a 2021 study, VSP may be particularly helpful in mandibular (lower jaw) reconstruction procedures, where tumors can be difficult to locate.

Orthopedic surgery

Surgeons are also increasingly using VSP in orthopedic surgery to help treat disorders of the bones and joints. In particular, as one 2023 narrative review noted, 3D modeling is helping orthopedic surgeons use more precision in complex procedures, such as shoulder and spinal surgeries.

Overall, VSP is considered an effective tool to help plan complex anatomical surgeries and predict their outcomes.

Still, there are a few limitations to consider discussing. For one, VSP is time consuming, and it assumes that no anatomical changes will occur between the planning process and the actual surgery.

A 2021 clinical review also points out that the process of VSP doesn’t provide feedback to help a surgeon improve planning and outcomes. This could mean that VSP may be most effective in the hands of a more experienced surgeon.

VSP is a noninvasive procedure, meaning that it doesn’t carry risks that other procedures might pose.

Although this is another benefit of VSP, keep in mind that the procedure might not be appropriate for all medical situations. For example, due to the amount of time involved, most experts don’t consider VSP a good fit for rapidly changing medical situations, such as fast-growing tumors.

Furthermore, other researchers have raised concerns about an overreliance on VSP, which could affect surgeons’ skills in more traditional surgical planning methods.

The technology and time that go into VSP make this a relatively expensive tool. In fact, one 2019 analysis of VSP for mandibular reconstruction found that it could cost upwards of $8,000, but sometimes under $1,000.

It’s important to note that these are out-of-pocket cost estimates. In some cases, private or government-based health insurance may cover a portion of VSP. This depends on your individual plan and coverage.

If a surgeon recommends VSP for your medical care, consider contacting your health insurance provider ahead of time to see if they may cover the procedure.

VSP has arguably become a game-changer since surgeons started using the tool for certain procedures. Although surgeons primarily use VSP in surgeries of the skull and facial bones, they may also use it in other situations in the future.

VSP can save time during surgery and prevent potential surgery complications, but it’s also an expensive procedure that may itself be time consuming. Before undergoing images for VSP, be sure to discuss the benefits and downsides with your surgeon.