The new year is upon us. Though 2,009 is just another number, the ‘turning of the clock’ always provides exciting new incentives to reassess the state of any given process. In this case, the process in question is the evolution of the veterinary industry.

There’s no doubt that veterinary medicine is rapidly evolving relative to almost every other medical field. The resulting change is disconcerting to most veterinarians—myself included—but the prospects for change are exciting and challenging nonetheless.

In general, I see an upswell in positives currently immersed in a sea of negatives. My profession is clearly in for another rollercoaster year. Here are this year’s ten biggest issues in veterinary medicine, per my predictions:

1. The cost of veterinary education

There’s no mistaking it. When new graduates are leaping into their careers with an average of  $100K to $200K in debt, the entire industry reels. Back when I graduated there were just a few of us shouldering this high level of indebtedness. Now it’s the median.

What it means is…more stress on young vets, more specialists, fewer practice owners (who can afford it?), the rise of corporate medicine, a larger separation between the “have” and “have not” veterinarians, somewhat higher salaries and, ultimately, bigger vet bills.

2. Veterinary drug and product supply choices

This is the fastest growing segment of the pet sector. In fact, it’s high up there among the fastest growing industries in the US—second to the likes of the consumer electronics market. That’s great news for all of us when it comes to newer and better drugs for pets and increased product choices.

But newer drugs and products also means there’s going to be more to pay for. And, consequently, where you buy these drugs and products is changing. When you’re using more of this stuff, saving a few bucks a month by buying your arthritis meds and flea products elsewhere is bound to be the upshot.

Doing so, however, will alter the economics of the average vet hospital. Recognize that the price of veterinary services will likely rise as more of our clients eschew the convenience of buying at the vet’s in favor of saving some bucks where they can.

Currently, we effectively subsidize the cost of veterinary services with the income we make on products. When that income takes a hit, something’s going to have to give somewhere. Expect this change to begin taking serious effect in 2009.

3. The decline of the ‘old guard’

As new veterinarians and their issues enter the industry and older veterinarians retire, leadership will eventually change hands at the highest levels of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Instead of rich practice management and industrial agriculture taking center stage, I believe the larger economic issues of access to care, insurance, animal welfare, and balancing the needs of individual veterinarians with huge debt loads will rise to the forefront.

4. Milking wellness and a new breed of general veterinary practice

We all know about the rise of the veterinary specialty market. More of you are seeing surgeons, internists, cardiologists and ophthalmologists than ever before. But smart vets know that the more they refer their big money cases to specialists the more they lose income. Should that mean that the next major abdominal surgery be tackled ‘in-house’? No, of course not. But it does mean that general practice veterinarians will be brushing up and offering a better brand of service to their clients.

This year I predict most of you will be seeing a higher quality of veterinary offerings across the board. From mandatory IV catheters on every anesthetic procedure to more comprehensive labwork, you're in for it.

5. Corporate inroads into veterinary medicine

It’s inevitable. More of you will patronize large corporation-owned hospitals because fewer vets can afford to buy their own practices. Some will take on the cookie-cutter Banfield style of practice (which has it’s own set of pros and cons) while others will look more like your regular vet’s place with a corporate backbone behind the scenes.

6. Cancer therapies

Good news! More pet owners are willing to treat their pets’ cancer than ever before. That means more cancer therapies will become available. I’m betting that 2009 will see even more cancer patients receiving treatment for their condition. From radiation (like my Sophie Sue received for her brain tumor) to vaccines (like the melanoma vax) and chemotherapy (with increasingly safe and effective protocols), this is the future of vet medicine. Embrace it!

7. Less invasive approaches

Consider my leech approach for ear hematomas. While the jury’s out on its efficacy just yet (stay tuned), veterinarians are increasingly looking to less invasive ways to accomplish what we used to do with cold hard steel. Interventional radiology, ovariectomies and laparoscopic surgery are just a few of the ways in which we hope to spare our patients the pain and risk of more traditional approaches.

8. Pet health insurance

Every year we see more policies being written to help protect pet owners from taking huge hits on their increasingly hefty pet health expenditures. Is this the year you’ll sign up for one of those plans?

9. The rise of animal welfare

Here’s a biggie. 2008 saw broad-based changes in the AVMA’s way of tackling the animal welfare issue. The HSUS spawned its HSVMA as a response to the AVMA’s historically slack take on ear cropping, tail docking, factory farming and other hot button issues. I predict 2009 to bring more of the same welcome changes in policy as increasing numbers of veterinarians clamor for them.

10. Broad-based changes in population control measures

2008 was crazy with issues related to spaying and neutering pets. From mandatory spay/neuter laws to a multi-million dollar bounty offered on the head of a non-surgical sterilization technique, can 2009’s controversial offerings be far behind?

OK, now it's your turn. What are your hopes and predictions for the new year?