BACKGROUND: This systematic literature review is aimed at investigating applications of direct-to-consumer hearing devices for adults with hearing loss. This review discusses three categories of direct-to-consumer hearing devices: 1) personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), 2) direct-mail hearing aids, and 3) over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids.
METHOD: A literature review was conducted using EBSCOhost and included the databases CINAHL, MEDLINE, and PsycINFO. After applying prior agreed inclusion and exclusion criteria, 13 reports were included in the review.
RESULTS: Included studies fell into three domains: 1) electroacoustic characteristics, 2) consumer surveys, and 3) outcome evaluations. Electroacoustic characteristics of these devices vary significantly with some meeting the stringent acoustic criteria used for hearing aids, while others producing dangerous output levels (ie, over 120-dB sound pressure level). Low-end (or low-cost) devices were typically poor in acoustic quality and did not meet gain levels necessary for most adult and elderly hearing loss patterns (eg, presbycusis), especially in high frequencies. Despite direct-mail hearing aids and PSAPs being associated with lower satisfaction when compared to hearing aids purchased through hearing health care professionals, consumer surveys suggest that 5%-19% of people with hearing loss purchase hearing aids through direct-mail or online. Studies on outcome evaluation suggest positive outcomes of OTC devices in the elderly population. Of note, OTC outcomes appear better when a hearing health care professional supports these users.
CONCLUSION: While some direct-to-consumer hearing devices have the capability to produce adverse effects due to production of dangerously high sound levels and internal noise, the existing literature suggests that there are potential benefits of these devices. Research of direct-to-consumer hearing devices is limited, and current published studies are of weak quality. Much effort is needed to understand the benefits and limitations of such devices on people with hearing loss.